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The Coney Island House Register: a literary mystery

Jan 26, 2012 12:19 PM | 22 comments

The register of Coney Island's first hotel, Coney Island House, is a hefty volume. Its morocco leather trim, raised bands, gold-leaf detailing and marbled endpapers proclaim it as the record of an establishment that is unpretentious yet of solid worth. Coney Island House was built by the Gravesend and Coney Island Road and Bridge Company on land procured from Court Van Sicklen in the 1820s. Those who know the area today may find it hard to imagine the shore as it must have been then--a wild beach with a single road leading up to it, frequented only by clammers and beachcombers from nearby Gravesend. With the establishment of this hotel and others, a few tourists would come out to enjoy the sea air and the long vistas.

Page after and page of elaborate signatures could easily lull one into a reverie on the brevity of human life, or a reflection on the extraordinary changes that would take place in Coney Island over the course of the next century and a half. But then, every now and again, one turns a page, and the eye lands on a name that looks familiar. Can it be...? Yes, that is Jenny Lind, with P.T. Barnum's name right below it! 

And yet, one has to wonder...the signature preceding these at close of day, Thursday 12th September 1850, is that of "Bill Blunderbuss, Shirttail Bend." There are other spoofs.  Some wag --perhaps a hotel employee--signs in as Solomon Frizzlepipes, traveling in the company of Judith Snuffs. On another day a Longsnoot family comes to stay. Friday 13th September 1850 opens with the arrival of these two illustrious personages--or are they perhaps fictitious additions, intended to raise the status of the hotel?

But it is a page in early September of 1849 that really arouses wonderment. Mrs Bostwick and her friend Mrs Clement, now long gone, left their signatures as proof of a long-ago day spent by the sea. And so too, if we are to believe our eyes, did Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, and friends. According to Melville's biographer, Hershel Parker, "There happens to survive no known record of Melville's ever having seen Poe, although he describes Poe to the life in The Confidence Man (ch. 36)." Well then, if we believe in the authenticity of these signatures, here is proof that Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville and a handful of other literary figures met at Coney Island on Wednesday September 5th, 1849.  Also among the company was their mutual friend Evert Duyckinck,  writer Cornelius Mathews, and William Gilmore Simms who, with Duyckinck and Mathews had formed a literary group called Young America in the 1830s. Poet and satirist Fitz Greene Halleck completed the party.

Handwriting experts! Speak up and let us know what you think!

Doubt has been cast on the authenticity of these signatures.  The Poe Log, a meticulously researched day-by day account of Poe's life, locates him around Richmond VA on this date. Researchers at the Poe Museum tell us that "Poe’s whereabouts at the time [are] well documented by his letters as well as by newspaper notices of his lectures and his initiation in Richmond into the Sons of Temperance." 

A similar volume on Melville makes no mention of trips to Coney Island, but then, its author had not seen the Coney Island House Register! In 1849 Melville had not yet published Moby Dick, and even that masterwork failed to lift him from obscurity, so it is hard to imagine any motivation for a contemporary forgery.  I am no scholar of handwriting, but something about the natural flow of these signatures, their position on the page, their characteristic and unforced energy, suggests to me that they are genuine.

And so we are left to wonder what these men of letters got up to on their putative day by the sea. Poe had just recently joined the Sons of Temperance. Did he abstain as his friends quaffed ale and port, or did he succumb to temptation, plunging into the downward spiral that would leave him dead in a Baltimore gutter only a month later? Did they don bathing attire (or not!) and frolic in the September surf? Did they pair off, perhaps, for more intimate conversation on long shoreline strolls, stooping now and then to pick up a colored pebble or a shell? Or did they simply sit on the hotel verandah in their summer hats, gazing out to sea, watching for ships and charting the passage of clouds? 


"It's still full of cats in there."

Jan 23, 2012 10:36 AM | 0 comments

Details from a photograph of Red Hook's greased-up toughs battling cops with pop guns?

Little Dodger fans unhappy to find a heap of Preacher Roe's stinky socks?

 A dare-devil pilot heading towards his experimental plane at Floyd Bennet Field?

Or none of those things? Well, if you said none of those things you'd be right. All of these details come from the same photo, and one which, when I happened upon it, struck me as deeply mysterious. The last detail, below, which occasioned the convergence of all these Brooklynites doesn't help to clear up the riddle either, unless of course, you look a little closer.

The ASPCA stencil gives it away -- those crates are full of cats. And on August 28, 1950, John Joule, an agent for the ASPCA, was charged with the unenviable task of clearing out 40 or so of those little critters from a cramped store front where they'd been abandoned. Here's the complete photo of Joule at work.

The story of the cat rescue ran on the front page of that day's Eagle, just beneath a photo of a dozen or so North Korean prisoners of war lined up for food at a P.O.W. camp in Busan. In fact, but for short notices about a Himalayan earthquake, and a fire in a Montreal nightclub, the only other articles free of jingoistic Red scare patter and reports from the front in Korea are pieces about the difficulties a newly transplanted Hollywood starlet, Lisa Kirk, found in being faithful to her husband, and the work of John Joule, Brooklyn cat catcher.  

The subject headings in our catalog for this photo include: Cats and Gas masks. I think it's the only instance where these two headings appear together in the same catalog record.

Joule and his partner,  John Stizel, were indeed feline pretty bad. As the Eagle reported, after kicking-in the soaped over glass door at 222 St.Mark's Avenue, Joule and Stizel quickly slammed it shut again when they got a whiff of the cats' punishing odor. After donning a gas mask, and filling the 8 crates they had brought along, Joule was quoted as saying: "We need reinforcements. It's still full of cats in there." Once the extra crates arrived and were filled, Joule and Stizel took the cats back to 233 Butler St., where the ASPCA's shelter was located. What to do with the cats was solved, but where the cat owners were was another question. Landlord Claude Aulicino hadn't seen the elderly couple since he first rented them the storefront, a few months prior to the cat extraction, when they had paid two months rent in advance, and told Aulicino they'd be using the space to manufacture fire extinguishers.

As for Joule, it was just another day on the job. And as this 1931 image of him rescuing a cat at 1551 E. 10th St. attests, it was just another day on the job of a very long cat-catching career.

The New Brooklyn Cookbook: Author Talk with Melissa Vaughan and Michael Harlan Turkell, Wednesday, Jan. 25th, 6:30pm

Jan 19, 2012 12:30 PM | 0 comments

Please join us next Wednesday, January 25th, for this latest (and most certainly delicious) installment of our monthly lecture talk series.  Author Melissa Vaughan and photographer Michael Harlan Turkell take you on an exciting culinary tour of some of Brooklyn’s most vibrant restaurants, by way of their celebrated collaboration, The New Brooklyn Cookbook. They’ll introduce you to the restaurants, recipes, and entrepreneurs that make Brooklyn dining fit for a King.

As an additional treat for this food-centric event, we are happy to have the support of several local restaurants in providing a variety of hors d'oeuvres before the lecture.  Come early (doors open at 6:30pm) to enjoy gourmet snacks from two Union Street purveyors, Blue Apron Foods and Rose Water Restaurant, along with Fort Greene's iCi restaurant.  As usual, wine will also be served and the lecture begins at 7pm.  Seating is limited to 40 people. Tickets will be given out 30 minutes before the event.  Bon appetit!

The Flying Dutchman

Jan 6, 2012 12:09 PM | 0 comments

When I learned the Brooklyn Connections program had partnered with the Erasmus Campus, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work in the historic Flatbush institution that boasts an impressive list of alumni, including Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Joseph Barbera (of Hannah-Barbera), chess Grandmaster Bobby Fischer, actress Mae West--just to name a few. On a personal note, it is the school my father attended  from 1971 to 1975.

Erasmus Hall exterior. Photo by Irving Herzberg, 1957

From outside, the building on Flatbush Avenue resembles a medieval college building in the Gothic style, with owls perched atop the entrance; one would not at first assume this was a school.


Erasmus Hall has changed a great deal since its inception in 1787 from the small, wooden structure that still survives at the center of the campus, to its current grandiose iteration.  The school, originally named Erasmus Hall Academy after Dutch Scholar Desiderius Erasmus, was founded by a group of prominent trustees including John H. Livingston, John Vanderbilt, Aaron Burr, George Clinton and Alexander Hamilton.  The land was a gift of the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church and additional funds were contributed by the residents of Flatbush.

Erasmus Hall opened with about twenty-six young men enrolled in the Classical and English departments. Girls were allowed to register after 1801.  In June 1887, the town of Flatbush hosted a two-day celebration for the centennial anniversary of the school, the largest the town had ever seen.  However, by the early 1890s Erasmus was in decline due to competition from similar institutions such as the Polytechnic and Packer Institutes.  To resolve financial issues, in 1896 it was offered to the Board of Education of Brooklyn--on condition that it be maintained as a secondary school of the "highest grade and character."  As the population of Brooklyn increased and more residents attended secondary school, the original building became too small for the growing student body.  In 1905, the cornerstone was laid for what would be a thirty-five year construction project resulting in the present structure.   


The Brooklyn Collection houses several editions of "The Dutchman," a monthly paper published by the journalism students from the 1950s and 1960s and three "Flying Dutchman" yearbooks from 1901, 1911 and 1920.  These publications highlight the school's numerous clubs, sporting teams and student achievement.


In the 1920 yearbook, Erasmus boasted thirty-two clubs, not to mention nine sporting teams (including a girls' basketball and baseball team).  Notable clubs included the Classical Sodalitas (the Latin Society), the Hellenic Club, Debate Club and Monday Club--which was the oldest club in Erasmus, founded in 1899. 

Debate Club booklet, 1880s

Below are the lyrics to the school song:

Erasmus, all our hearts to thee with fervent impulse turn; We love thy halls, where hope is bright and lights of knowledge burn.  The hearty friendships of these days which through our lives shall last; The melody of youth's fair dreams, none from our hearts shall cast.

Chorus--Then cheer, cheer, cheer with might and main, Cheer for both one and all; For while we've still a heart and voice; We'll sing Erasmus Hall.

When manhood claims us for its own, thy charms shall never pall; With fondest love we'll ever turn, thy fostering care for all; And while we've still a heart and voice we'll sing Erasmus Hall.

When girls were not in class or in one of the various clubs, they might have been competing in the annual posture contest for the title of "Miss Erasmus." The winner was chosen based on her posture, personal appearance and health record.  Below is the 1951 "Miss Erasmus" winner Sedelle Nichols (center).

Graceful Erasmus Hall High School lassies do a victory step after Sedelle Nichols, center, was chosen 'Miss Erasmus.' Second and third runners-up, respectively, are Barbara Liebman, right, and Irene Greenberg, left."

Brooklyn Eagle, December 28, 1951

The 1954 "Miss Erasmus," Judy Sonnenstein (left) beat out 2,500 girls to win her title. 

Erasmus Hall's three best postures--Erasmus Hall High School principal John F. McNeill congratulates the winner and runners-up of the school's annual posture contest.

Brooklyn Eagle, April 7, 1954

There were also some touching stories to come out of the school.  One of particular interest is about "Bobby Soxer," a 78-year-old woman who received her diploma in 1955, after attending Erasmus Evening Elementary School in 1948 and graduating the lower school in 1949.  She decided to take classes after her husband passed away in 1944.   According to the Eagle, she not only craved an education, tired of signing her name xxx, she also missed being around people.

Brooklyn Eagle, January 27, 1955

Fast forward to 1987 when Daily News Reporter Tony Marcano went undercover as a student in the school.  He reported the school walls, halls and gymnasium were overwhelmed with graffiti, teachers and administrators were unhelpful and the school was grossly overpopulated.  According to his report, when he "dropped out," there was no attempt to keep him as a student.  He felt the school system had failed him, just like they failed many other students.

Today, the graffiti has been cleaned up, and the building has been divided into five, thriving, smaller schools--Academy for College Preparation and Career Exploration: A College Board School; Academy of Hospitality and Tourism; High School for Service & Learning; High School for Youth and Community Development; and Science, Technology and Research Early College School (STAR).  I am working with the last of these, in a sixth grade social studies class.  The students will be completing a research paper about the history of Erasmus.  I cannot wait to see what they come up with! 

Subway Art

Jan 4, 2012 12:04 PM | 0 comments

There are transit buffs and then there are transit buffs...and then there is Philip Ashforth Coppola. Coppola's beautifully illustrated and obsessively compiled multi-volume masterpiece, Silver Connections: A Fresh Perspective on the New York Area Subway Systems, is probably my favorite set of books in our collection. And for anyone interested in the history and aesthetics of our city's transit system, they are essential reading, covering as they do the design and artwork of numerous city subway stations. There really are no other books like these.

Cover of Volume 1

Cover of Volume 2

Self-published in limited editions, Coppola's books are lovingly and carefully arranged. The intricate covers are thermographically printed on heavy paper and, where hand-lettering is not availed of, the text has been typed out on an IBM Selectric II with, as noted in the back of each volume, the Delegate element. Throughout the volumes custom rubber stamps have been used to number drawings and enliven title pages with a dash of red.

The Four Oceans Press logo. Stamp created by Acme Rubber Stamp Works, Maplewood, NJ.

Mixing the hand-made vernacular of the amateur with the comprehensive and meticulous eye of the expert, Coppola's work could easily fit into a family tree of artists and tinkerers like Red Grooms or Rube Goldberg. Indeed, Coppola's four volumes could serve as a handy schematic counterpart to Grooms' 1975 installation Ruckus Manhattan, seeing as how both projects, albeit in different ways, seek to reconstruct the city before our very eyes.

Coppola's work fleshes out the New York we know, but, by its careful attention to details otherwise overlooked -- like the light fixture above and the tile pattern below -- asks us to look again at our all-too-familiar built environment.

But all aesthetic considerations aside, these books are also chock full of information. Want to know what role Brooklyn's Hecla Iron Works played in the construction of the Manhattan IRT contract 1 line? Just turn to page 480 in book 2 volume 1 where you'll read the following:

Hecla made all 133 kiosks. The entrance kiosks had sort of four-sided onion dome roofs, and the exit kiosks had four-sided step-pyramid or ziggurat roofs -- at least, they were supposed to according to a plan which I saw on display at the Transit Exhibition (as of 7/28/78). But I don't believe that that plan was ever carried out; I think that all the kiosks -- whether they said 'EXIT' or 'ENTRANCE' -- had the same style domes over their stairwells.

Accounts of things as mundane as kiosks -- for who, really, could make a kiosk sound interesting? -- are, if not made riveting, at least sauced up with a splash of something more personal. We can see Coppola at the Transit Exhibition soaking up the plans for onion-domes and ziggurats, saucer-eyed and fantasizing of a city studded with exotic kiosk roofing solutions. Readers might also catch a glimpse of Coppola's imaginative feeling for the life of the transit system in the title page of his chapter on the Fulton Ferry-York Street-Hudson Avenue Elevated; not only is it richly illustrated, but, with that word "demise," Coppola eschews the dry civic tone which usually accompanies stories of infrastructural renewal for something bordering on the narrative oomph of a comic book. Somewhere down in that dockyard scene you feel like you might find heroes and villains.

Though covering the transit system throughout the city, there is plenty in these pages that focuses specifically on Brooklyn. If you want to see Coppola's drawings of towerside lamps on the Williamsburg Bridge, you'll find them here; looking for depictions of Hoyt Street station columns? look no further; or how about fancy signs in the control house at the Kosciusko Street station on the Broadway Elevated line? Those fancy signs are here. Everything is here. Everything and then some, and we have it all for your perusal. In the meantime, check out Jeremy Workman's short documentary about Philip Ashforth Coppola or read a New York Times article from 2000 on this subway maestro and his pursuit to document our city's depths.  

Stamp appearing at the end of Vol. 3, beside which reads: "Look for this seal when making your purchase. Beware of imitations; accept no substitutes."