If my days of fancy and romance were not past, I could find here an ample field for indulgence !ABIGAIL ADAMS, writing from Richmond Hill House, in 1783.
I HAD left dear St. John’s,for this time my pilgrim feet were turned a bit northward to a shrine of romance rather than religion. I meandered along Canal, and traversed Congress Street. Congress, by the bye, is about two yards long; do you happen to know it?
In a few moments, I was standing in a sort of trance at that particular point of Manhattan marked by the junction of Charlton and Varick streets and the end of Macdougal, about two hundred feet north of Spring. And there was nothing at all about the scenic setting, you would surely have said, to send anyone into any kind of a trance.
On one side of me was an open fruit stall; on another, a butcher’s shop; the Cafe Gorizia (with windows flagrant with pink confectionery), and the two regulation and indispensable saloons to make up the four corners.
In a sentimentally reminiscent mood, I took out a notebook, to write down something of my impressions and fancies. But there was a general murmur of war-inflamed suspicion, and I desisted and fled. How was I to tell them that there, where I stood, in that very citified and very nearly squalid environment (it was raining that day too), I could yet see, quite distinctly, the shadowy outlines of the one-time glorious House of Richmond Hill?
They were high gates and ornate, one under-stands. I visualised them over and against the dull and dingy modern buildings. Somewhere near here where I was standing, the great drive-way had curved in between the tall, fretted iron posts, to that lovely wooded mound which was the last and most southern of the big Zantberg Range, and seemingly of a rare and rich soil. The Zantberg, you remember, started rather far out in the country,somewhere about Clinton Place and Broadway,and ran south and west as far as Varick and Van Dam streets.
I had passed on Downing Street one house at least which looked as though it had been there forever and ever, but just here it was most commonplace and present-century in setting, and the roar of traffic was in my ears. But I am sure that I saw Richmond Hill House plainly,that distinguished structure which was described by an eyewitness as ” a wooden building of massive architecture, with a lofty portico supported by Ionic columns, the front walls decorated with pilasters of the same order and its whole appearance distinguished by a Palladian character of rich though sober ornament.” We learn further that its entrance was broad and imposing, that there were balconies fronting the rooms on the second story. The inside of the house was spaciously partitioned, with large, high rooms, massive stairways with fine mahogany woodwork, and a certain restful amplitude in everything which was a feature of most of the true Colonial houses.
Thomas Janvier quotes from some anonymous writer of an earlier day: ” From the crest of this small eminence was an enticing prospect; on the south, the woods and dells and winding road from the lands of Lispenard, through the valley where was Borrowson’s tavern; and on the north and west the plains of Greenwich Village made up a rich prospect to gaze on.”
Lispenard’s Salt Meadows lie still, I suppose, under Canal Street North. I have not been able to place exactly Borrowson’s tavern. Our old friend, Minetta Water, which flowed through the site of Washington Square, made a large pond at the foot of Richmond Hill,somewhere about the present junction of Bedford and Downing streets. In winter it offered wonderful skating; in summer it was a dream of sylvan loveliness, and came to be called Burr’s Pond, after that enigmatic genius who later lived in the house.
One more descriptionand the bestof Richmond Hill as it was the century before last; this one written by good Mistress Abigail, wife of John Adams, one-time vice-president of the United States, during their occupancy of the place. Said she, openly adoring the Hill at all times :
” In natural beauty it might vie with the most delicious spot I ever saw. It is a mile and a half from the city of New York. The house stands upon an eminence; at an agreeable distance flows the noble Hudson, bearing upon its bosom in-numerable small vessels laden with the fruitful productions of the adjacent country. Upon my right hand are fields beautifully variegated with grass and grain, to a great extent, like the valley of Honiton in Devonshire. Upon my left the city opens to view, intercepted here and there by a rising ground and an ancient oak. In front beyond the Hudson, the Jersey shores present the exuberance of a rich, well-cultivated soil. In the background is a large flower-garden, enclosed with a hedge and some every handsome trees. Venerable oaks and broken ground covered with wild shrubs surround me, giving a natural beauty to the spot which is truly enchanting. A lovely variety of birds serenade me morning and evening, rejoicing in their liberty and security.”
The historian, Mary L. Booth, commenting on the above, says :
” This rural picture of a point near where Charlton now crosses Varick Street naturally strikes the prosaic mind familiar with the locality at the present day as a trick of the imagination. But truth is stranger, and not infrequently more interesting, than fiction.”
And now go back to the beginning.
A very large section of this part of the island was held under the grant of the Colonial Government, by the Episcopal Church of the city of New Yorklater to be known more succinctly as Trinity Church Parish. St. John’s,not built at that time, of courseis part of the same property. This particular portion (Richmond Hill), as we may gather from the enthusiastic accounts of those who had seen it, must have been peculiarly desirable. At any rate, it appealed most strongly to one Major Abraham Mortier, at one time commissary of the English army, and a man of a good deal of personal wealth and position.
In 1760, Major Mortier acquired from the Church Corporation a big tract including the especial hill of his desires and, upon it, high above the green valleys and the silver pond, he proceeded to put a good part of his considerable fortune into building a house and laying out grounds which should be a triumph among country estates.
That he was a personage of importance goes without saying, for His Majesty’s forces had right of way in those days, in all things social as well as governmental. He proceeded to entertain largely, as soon as he had his home ready for it, and so it was that at that time Richmond Hill established its deathless reputation for hospitality.
Mortier did not buy the property outright but got it on a very long lease. Though his first name sounds Hebraic and his last Gallic, he was, we may take it, a thoroughly British soul, for he called it Richmond Hill to remind him of England. The people of New York used to gossip excitedly over the small fortune he spent on those grounds, the house was the most pretentious that the neighbourhood had boasted up to that time. Of course the Warren place was much farther north, and this particular locality was only just beginning to be fashionable.
A friend of the Commissary’s, and a truly illustrious visitor at the Hill, was Sir Jeffrey Amherst, later Lord Amherst. He made Mortier’s house his headquarters at the close of his campaigns waged against French power in America. He is really not so well known as he should be, for in those tangled beginnings of our country we can hardly overestimate the importance of any one determined or strategic move, and it is due to Amherst, very largely, that half of the State of New York was not made a part of Canada. Incidentally, Amherst College is named for him.
The worthy Commissary died, it is believed, at about the time that trouble started. On April 13th, in the memorable year 1776, General Washington made ” the Hill ” his headquarters, and the house built by the British army official was the scene of some of the most stirring conferences that marked the beginning of the Revolution.
At the vitally important officers councils held behind those tall, white columns, there was one man so unusual, so brilliant, so incomprehensible, that a certain baffling interest if not actual romance attaches itself automatically to the bare utterance or inscription of his name,Aaron Burr. He was aide-decamp to General Putnam, and already had a vivid record behind him. It was during Washington’s occupancy of Richmond Hill that Burr grew to love the place which was later to be his own home.
I confess to a very definite weakness for Aaron Burr. Few hopeless romanticists escape it. Dramatically speaking, he is one of the most striking figures in American history, and I imagine that I have not been the first dreamer of dreams and writer of books who has haunted the scenes of his flesh-and-blood activity in the secret, half-shamefaced hope of one day happening upon his ghost!
From the day of his graduation from college at sixteen, he somehow contrived to win the attention of everyone whom he came near. He still wins it. We love to read of his frantic rush to the colours, guardian or no guardian; of the steel in him which lifted him from a bed of fever to join the Canadian expedition; of his daring exploits of espionage disguised as a French Catholic priest; of a hundred and one similar incidents in a life history which, as we read it, is far too strange not to be true.
Spectacular he was from his birth, and even today his name upon a page is enough to set up a whole theatre in our imaginations. Just one incident comes to me at this moment. It is so closely associated with the region with which this book is concerned, that I cannot but set it down in passing.
The story runs that it was a mistake in an order which sent General Knox of Silliman’s Brigade to a small fort one mile from town (that is, about Grand Street), known as ” Bunker’s Hill “not to be confounded with the other and more famous ” Bunker”! It happened to be a singularly unfortunate position. There was neither food nor water in proper quantities, and the munitions were almost non-existent.- The enemy was on the island.
Whether Major Burr, of Putnam’s division, was sent under some regular authority, or whether he characteristically had taken the matter into his own hands, the histories I have read do not tell. But they do tell of his galloping up, breath-less on a lathered horse, making the little force understand the danger of their position, pleading with his inimitable eloquence and advancing the reasons for their retreat at once. The men were stubborn; they did not want to retreat. But he talked. He proved that the English could take the scrap of a fort in four hours; he exhorted and urged, and at last he won. They said they would follow him. From that moment he took charge, and led them along the Greenwich Road through the woods, skirting the swamps, fording the rivers, to Harlem, to safety and to eventual victory.
This was only one of many instances in which his wit, his eloquence, his good sense, his leadership and his unquestioned personal daring served his country and served her well.
When Washington moved his headquarters to the Roger Morris house near the Point of Rocks, a period of comparative mystery descended for a time upon Richmond Hill. During the ensuing struggle, and before the formal evacuation of New York, the house is supposed to have been occupied off and on by British officers. But in 1783 they departed for good! and in 1789, Vice-president John Adams and Mistress Abigail came to live there.
We have already read two examples of Mrs. Adams’ enthusiastic outpourings in regard to Richmond Hill. She was, in fact, never tired of writing of it.
That entire neighbourhood was rich in game,we have already seen that the Dutch farmers thought highly of the duck shooting near the Sand Hill Road, and that Minetta Brook was a first-class fishing stream. Birds of all sorts were plentiful, and the Adamses did their best to pre-serve them on their own place. But too keen sportsmen were always stealing into the Richmond Hill grounds for a shot or two. ” Oh, for game laws!” was her constant wail. In one letter she declares: ” The partridge, the wood-cock and the pigeon are too great temptations for the sportsman to withstand! ”
And please don’t forget for one moment that this was at Charlton and Varick streets!
The House on the Hill was the home of quite ceremonious entertaining in those days. John Adams, in another land, would surely have been a courtiera Cavalier rather than a Roundhead. John T. Morse, Jr., says that the Vice-president liked ” the trappings of authority.” The same historian declares that in his advice to President Washington, “. . . he talked of dress and undress, of attendants, gentlemenin-waiting, chamberlains, etc., as if he were arranging the household of a European monarch.”
Gulian C. Verplanck (sometimes known by the nom de plume of ” Francis Herbert “), wrote in 1829, quite an interesting account of Richmond Hill as he personally recalled it. He draws for us a graphic picture of a dinner party given by the Vice-president and Mrs. Adams for various illustrious guests.
After entering the house by a side door on the right, they mounted a broad staircase with a heavy mahogany railing. Dinner was served in a large room on the second floor with Venetian windows and a door opening out onto the balcony under the portico. And then he gives us these vivid little vignettes of those who sat at the great table:
In the centre sat ” Vice-president Adams in full dress, with his bag and solitaire, his hair frizzed out each side of his face as you see it in Stuart’s older pictures of him. On his right sat Baron Steuben, our royalist republican disciplinarian general. On his left was Mr. Jefferson, who had just returned from France, conspicuous in his red waistcoat and breeches, the fashion of Versailles. Opposite sat Mrs. Adams, with her cheerful, intelligent face. She was placed between the Count du Moustier, the French Ambassador, in his redheeled shoes and earrings, and the grave, polite, and formally bowing Mr. Van Birket, the learned and able envoy of Holland. There, too, was Chancellor Livingston, then still in the prime of life, so deaf as to make conversation with him difficult,’ yet so overflowing with wit, eloquence and information that while listening to him the difficulty was forgotten. The rest were members of Congress, and of our Legislature, some of them no inconsiderable men. Being able to talk French, a rare accomplishment in America at that time, a place was assigned to me next the count.”
Verplanck goes on to describe the dinner. He says that it was a very grand affair, bountiful and elaborately served, but the French Ambassador would taste nothing. He took a spoonful or two of soup but refused everything else ” from the roast beef down to the lobsters.” Everyone was concerned, for that was a day of trenchermen, and only serious illness kept people from eating their dinners. At last the door opened and his own private chef,quaintly described by Verplanck as ” his body-cook,”rushed into the room pushing the waiters right and left before him, and placed triumphantly upon the table an immense pie of game and truffles, still hot from the oven. This obviously had been planned as a pleasant surprise for the hosts. Du Moustier took a small helping himself and divided the rest among the others. The chronicler adds, ” I can attest to the truth of the story and the excellence of the pate!”
No one doubts the courteous intentions of the Count, but something tells me that that excellent housewife and incomparable hostess, Mistress Adams, was not enchanted by the unexpected addition to her delicious and carefully planned menu !
It is Verplanck, by the bye, who has put in a peculiarly succinct way one of the most signal characteristics of New Yorkits lightning-like evolution.
” In this city especially,” he says, ” the progress of a few years effect what in Europe is the work of centuries.” A shrewd and happily tongued observer, is Mr. Verplanck; we shall have occasion, I believe, to refer to him again.
The Adams’ occupancy of Richmond Hill House was, we must be convinced, a very happy one. It was a house of a flexible and versatile personality, a beautiful home, an important head-quarters of many state affairs, a brilliant social nucleus. Washington and his wife often went there to call in their beloved post-chaise, and there was certainly no dignitary of the time and the place who was not at one time or another a guest there. In the course of time, the Adamses went to a new and fine dwelling at Bush Hill on the Schuylkill. And dear Mistress Abigail, faithful to the house of her heart, wrote wistfully of her just-acquired home:
” It is a beautiful place, but the grand and sublime I left at Richmond Hill ” . . .
In 1797, the house went to a rich foreigner named Temple. I quote the chronicles of old New York, but can give you little information concerning this gentleman. The only thing at all memorable or interesting about him seems to have been the fact that he was robbed of a large quantity of money and valuables while at the Hill, that the thieves were never discovered and that for this reason at least he filled the local press for quite a time. His occupancy seems to have been short, and, save for the robbery, uneventful (if he really was a picturesque and adventurous soul, I humbly ask pardon of his ghost, but this is all I can find out about him!)for it was in that self-same year that the Burrs came to live at Richmond Hill, and Temple passed into obscurity as far as New York history is concerned.
Mrs. Burr, that older Theodosia who was the idol of Aaron Burr’s life, had died three years before, and little Theo was now the head of his household. Have you ever read the letters that passed between these three, by the bye? They are so quaint, so human, so tenderI believe that you will agree with me that such reading has more of charm in it than the most dramatic mod-ern novel. They bemoan their aches and pains and cheer each other up as though they were all little Theo’s age. ” Passed a most tedious night,” writes Mrs. Burr, and adds that she has bought a pound of green tea for two dollars! And” Ten thousand loves. Toujours la votre Theodosia.”
Burr writes that he has felt indisposed, but is better, thanks to a draught ” composed of laudanum, nitre and other savoury drugs.” When their letters do not arrive promptly they are in despair.
Stage after stage without a line!” complains Theodosia the mother, in one feverishly incoherent note. And Theodosia the daughter, even at nine years old, had her part in this correspondence.
Her father writes her that from the writing on her last envelope, he thought the letter must come from some ” great fat fellow “! He advises her to write a little smaller, and says he loves to hear from her. Then he whimsically reproaches her for not saying a word about his last letter to her, nor answering a single one of his questions: ” That is not kindit is scarcely civil! ”
When little Theodosia was eleven her mother died, and henceforward she was her father’s housekeeper and dearest companion. She is said to have been beautiful, brilliant and fascinating even from her babyhood, and certainly the way in which she took charge of Richmond Hill at the age of fourteen would have done credit to a woman with at least another decade to her credit.
Burr had a beautiful city house besides the one on the Hill, but he and Theo both preferred the country place, and they entertained there as lavishly as the Adamses before them. Burr had a special affection for the French, and his house was always hospitably open to the expatriated aristocrats during the French Revolution. Volney stopped with him, and Talleyrand, and Louis Philippe himself. Among the Americans his most constant guests were Dr. Hosack, the Clintons, and, oddly enough, Alexander Hamilton! Hamilton, one imagines, found Burr personally interesting, though he had small use for his politics, and warned people against him as being that dangerous combination: a daring and adventurous spirit, quite without conservative principles or scruples.
Burr is described by one biographer as being ” a well-dressed man, polite and confident, with hair powdered and tied in a queue.” He stooped slightly, and did not move with the grace or ease one would have expected from so experienced a soldier, but he had ” great authority of manner,” and was uniformly ” courtly, witty and charming.” During one of those legal battles in which he had only one rival (Hamilton) it was re-ported of him that ” Burr conducted the trial with the dignity and impartiality of an angel but with the rigour of a devil! ”
Gen. Prosper M. Wetmore, who adores his memory and can find extenuation for anything and everything he did, writes this charming tribute :
” Born, as it seemed, to adorn society; rich in knowledge; brilliant and instructive in conversation; gifted with a charm of manner that was almost irresistible; he was the idol of all who came within the magic sphere of his friendship and his social influence.”
His enthusiastic historians fail to add that, though he does not seem to have been at all hand-some, he was always profoundly fascinating to women. It is doubtful (in spite of his second marriage at seventy odd) if he ever loved anyone very deeply after his wife Theodosia’s death, but it is very certain indeed that a great, great many loved him!
Richmond Hill was the scene of one exceedingly quaint incident during the very first year that Burr and his young daughter lived in it.
Burr was in Philadelphia on political business, and fourteen-year-old Theo was in charge in the great house on the Hill a mile and a half from New York. Imagine any modern father leaving his little girl behind in a more or less remote country place with a small army of servants under her and full and absolute authority over them and herself! But I take it that there are not many modern little girls like Theodosia Burr. Certainly there are very few who could translate the American Constitution into French, and Theo did that while she was still a slip of a girl, merely to please her adored father!
Which is a digression.
In some way Burr had made the acquaintance of the celebrated Indian Chief of the Mohawks, Tha-yen-da-ne-gea. He was intelligent, educated and really a distinguished orator, and Burr took a great fancy to him. The Chief had adopted an American name, Joseph Brant,and had acquired quite a reputation. He was en route for Washington, but anxious to see New York before he went. So Burr sent him to Richmond Hill, and gave him a letter to present to Theo, saying that his daughter would take care of him!
The letter runs :
“. . . This will be handed to you by Colonel Brant, the celebrated Indian Chief. . . . He is a man of education. . . . Receive him with respect and hospitality. He is not one of those Indians who drink rum, but is quite a gentleman; not one who will make you fine bows, but one who understands and practises what belongs to propriety and good-breeding. He has daughters -if you could think of some little present to send to one of them (a pair of earrings for example)’ it would please him. . . .”
Even the prodigiously resourceful Theo was a bit taken aback by this sudden proposition. In the highly cosmopolitan circle that she was used to entertaining, she so far had encountered n0 savages, and, in common with most young people, she thought of ” Brant” as a fierce barbarian who, her father’s letter not withstanding,probably carried a tomahawk and would dance a war dance in the stately hallway of Richmond Hill.
In her letter to her father, written after she had met Brant and made him welcome, she admitted that she had been paramountly worried about what she ought to give him to eat. She declared that her mind was filled with wild ideas of (and she quotes)
“`The Cannibals that each’ other eat,
The anthropophagi, and men whose heads Do grow beneath their shoulders!”‘
She had, she confesses, a vague notion that all savages ate human beings, and,though this obviously was intended as a touch of grisly humour,had half a notion to procure a human head and have it served up in state after the mediaeval fashion of serving boars’ heads in Old England!
However, she presented him with a most up-to-date and epicurean banquet, and had the wit and good taste to include in her dinner party such representative men as Bishop Moore, Dr. Bard and her father’s good friend Dr. Hosack, the surgeon.
When the party was over she wrote Burr quite enthusiastically about the Indian Chief, and declared him to have been ” a most Christian and civilised guest in his manners!”
There were no ladies at Theo’s dinner party. She lived so much among men, and so early learned to take her place as hostess and woman that I imagine she would have had small patience with the patronage and counsel of older members of her sex. That she was extravagantly popular with men old and young is proved in many ways. Wherever she went she was a belle. Whether the male beings she met chanced to be young and stupid or old and wise, there was something for them to admire in Theo, for she was both beautiful and witty, and she had something of her father’s ” confidence of manner ” which won adherents right and left.
Mayor Livingston took her on board a frigate in the harbour one day, and warned her to leave her usual retainers behind.
” Now, Theodosia,” he admonished her with affectionate raillery, ” you must bring none of your sparks on board! They have a magazine there, and we should all be blown up!”
In 1801, when she was eighteen years old, the lovely Theo married Joseph Alston, an immensely rich rice planter from South Carolina, owner of more than a thousand slaves, and at one time governor of his state. Though she went to the South to live, she never could bear to sever entirely her relations with Richmond Hill. It is a curious fact that everyone who ever lived there loved it best of all the places in the world.
One year after her marriage Theo came on to New York for a visitI suppose she stopped at her father’s town house, since it was in spring, and before the country places would naturally be open. At all events it was during this visit that, fresh from her rice fields (which never agreed with her), she wrote in a letter:
. . . I have just returned from a ride in the country and a visit to Richmond Hill. Never did I behold this island so beautiful. The variety of vivid greens, the finely cultivated fields and gardens, the neat, cool air of the cit’s boxes peeping through straight rows of tall poplars, and the elegance of some gentlemen’s seats, commanding a view of the majestic Hudson, and the high, dark shores of New Jersey, altogether form a scene so lovely, so touching, and to me so new, that I was in constant rapture.”
In 1804 came the historic quarrel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Since this chapter is the story of Richmond Hill and not the life of Aaron Burr, I shall not concern myself with the whys or the wherefores of that disastrous affair.
Histories must perforce deal with the political aims, successes and failures of men; must cover a big canvas and sing a large and impersonal song. But just here we have only to think of these old-time phantoms of ours as they affect or are affected by the old-time regions in which for the nonce we are interested. To Richmond Hillwith its white columns and shadow-flinging portico, its gardens and its oak trees and its silver pondit was of small import that the master just missed being President of the United States, that he did become Vice-president, and President of the Senate, and that he was probably as able a jurist as ever distinguished the Bar of New York; also that he made almost as many enemies as he did friends. But it was decidedly the concern of the sweet and imposing old house on Richmond Hill that it was from its arms, so to speak, that he went out in a cold, white rage to the duel with his chief enemy; that he returned, broken and heartsick, doubly defeated in that he had chanced to be the victor, to the protection of Richmond Hill.
I cannot help believing that the household gods of a man take a very special interest and a very personal part in what fortunes befall him. More than any deities of old, they live with and in him; they at once go forth with him to battle, and welcome him home. I can conceive of some hushed and gracious home-spirit walking restless by night because the heart and head of the house was afar or in danger. And a house so charged with personality as that on Richmond Hall must have had many a ghost, of fireside and of garden close,who wept for fallen fortunes as they had rejoiced for gaiety and bright enter-prise.
Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were born antagonists: their personalities, their ideals, their methods, were as diverse and as implacably divergent as the poles. Hamilton, as a statesman, believed that Burr was dangerous; and so he was : sky rockets and geniuses usually are. Hamilton did his brilliant best to destroy the other’s power (it was chiefly due to his efforts that Burr missed the Presidency), and, being a notably courageous man, he was not afraid to go on warning America against him.
And so it all came about:the exchange of lettershaughty, courteously insolent, utterly unyielding on both sidesthen the challenge, and finally the duel.
I am glad to think that Theo Alston was safe among her husband’s rice fields at that time. She worshipped her father, and everything that hurt him stabbed her to her devoted heart.
It was in an early, fragrant dawnFriday the sixth of July, 1804that Burr and his seconds left our beautiful Richmond Hill, where the birds were singing and the pond just waking to the morning light, for Weehawken Heights on the Jersey shore.
At about seven, Burr reached the ground which had been appointed. Just after came Hamilton with his seconds, and the surgeon, Dr. Hosack. The distance was punctiliously measured, and these directions read solemnly to the principals:
” The parties, being placed at their stations, shall present and fire when they please. If one fires before the other, the opposite second shall say I23fire; and he shall then fire or lose his fire.”
Then came the word ” Present!” from one of the witnesses. Both duellists fired and Hamilton dropped. Burr was untouched. He stood for a second looking at his fallen adversary, and then (as the story goes), ” with a gesture of profound regret, left the ground. . . .”
Back to Richmond Hill and the troubled house-hold gods. Burr was no butcher, and he did not dislike Hamilton personally. I wonder how many times he paced the cool dining-room with the balcony outside, and how many times he refused meat or drink, before he despatched his note to Dr. Hosack? Here it is:
” Mr. Burr’s respectful compliments.He re-quests Dr. Hosack to inform him of the present state of General H., and of the hopes which are entertained of his recovery.
” Mr. Burr begs to know at what hour of the day the Dr. may most probably be found at home, that he may repeat his enquiries. He would take it very kind if the Dr. would take the trouble of calling on him, as he returns from Mr. Bayard’s.”
On the thirteenth, the New York Herald published:
“With emotions that we have not a hand to inscribe, have we to announce the death of Alexander Hamilton.
” He was suddenly cut off in the forty-eighth year of his age, in the full vigour of his faculties and in the midst of all his usefulness.”
The inquest which followed presented many and mixed views. Samuel Lorenzo Knapp, writing in 1835, and evidently a somewhat prejudiced friend, says that ” the jury of inquest at last were reluctantly dragooned into a return of murder.”
Meanwhile, for eleven long black days, Burr stayed indoors at Richmond Hill. He was afraid to go out, for he knew that popular feeling was, in the main, against him. Dark times for the household gods! At last, one starless, cloudy night, having heard of the murder verdict, he stole away.
His faithful servant and friend, John Swartwout, went with him, and a small barge lay waiting for him on the Hudson just below his Richmond Hill estate, with a discreet crew. They rowed all night, and at breakfast time, he turned up at the country place of Commodore Truxton, at Perth Amboy.
Haggard and worn, he greeted his friend the Commodore with all his usual sang-froid, and suggested nonchalantly that he had ” spent the night on the water, and a dish of coffee would not come amiss! ”
He never went back to Richmond Hill to live again, though he later returned to New York and dwelt there for many years. He went, for a time, to Theo in the South, fearing arrest, but as a matter of fact, verdict or no verdict, the matter of Hamilton’s death was never followed up. Burr came calmly back to the Capitol and finished his term as Vice-president. In his farewell speech to the Senate he said he did not remember the names of all the people who had slandered him and intrigued against him, since ” he thanked God he had no memory for injuries!”
The year after the duel he evolved his monstrous and hare-brained plan of establishing a Southern Republic with New Orleans as Capital and himself as President. Mexico was in it too. In fact, President Jefferson himself wrote of the project: ” He wanted to overthrow Congress, corrupt the navy, take the throne of Montezuma and seize New Orleans. . . . It is the most extraordinary since the days of Don Quixote! . . .”
General Wetmore loyally declares the scheme to have been ” a justifiable enterprise for the con-quest of one of the provinces of Southern America.” But no one in the whole world really knows all about it. The sum of the matter is that he was tried for treason, and that, though he was ac-quitted, he was henceforward completely dead politically. Through all, Theo stood by him, and her husband too. They went to prison with him, and shared all his humiliation and disappointment. Affection? Blind, confident adoration? Never was man born who could win it more completely !
But America as a whole did not care for him any more. Dr. Hosack loaned him money, and, after his acquittal, he set sail for England, and let Richmond Hill be sold to John Jacob Astor by his creditors. It brought only $25,000, which was a small sum compared to what he owed, so he had another object in staying on the other side of the water : a quite lively chance of the Debtors’ Prison!
Apropos of this, there is one rather human little tale which is comforting to read, dropped down, as it is, in the middle of so wildly brilliant a career, so colossally disastrous a destiny.
While Burr was living at Richmond Hill, he was often obliged to take coach journeys to out-side points. One day he was on his way home from Albany and stopped at a roadhouse at Kingston. While he was eating and drinking and the horses were being changed, he saw a drawing which interested him. He asked to see more by the same artist, for he had a keen appreciation of skill in all lines.
This and the other sketches shown him were the work of a young fellow called John Vanderlyn, who shortly was summoned to meet the great Burr. The lad was apprenticed to a wagon-maker, and had absolutely no prospects nor any hope of cultivating his undoubted talent. Like any other boy young and poor and in a position so humble as to offer no opportunity of improvement, he was even afraid of change, and seemed unwilling to take the plunge of leaving his master and taking his chance in the great world.
” Very well,” said Burr. ” When you change your mind, just put a clean shirt in your pocket, come to New York and asked for Colonel Burr.”
Then he dismissed the boy from his presence and the whole episode from his mind, got into his coach and continued on his way.
Two months later he was at breakfast in the dining-room at Richmond Hill,with Theo probably pouring out his ” dish of coffee,”when a vast disturbance arose downstairs. A roughly dressed lad had presented himself at the front door and insisted on seeing Colonel Burr, in spite of all the resistance of his manservant. At last he succeeded in forcing his way past, and made his appearance in the breakfast-room, followed by the startled and indignant servant. Burr did not recognise him in the least, but the youth walked up to him, pulled a shirtof country make but quite cleanout of his coat pocket, and held it out.
Immediately it all came back to Burr, and he was delighted by the simplicity with which the wagon-maker’s apprentice had taken him at his word. No one could play the benefactor more generously when he chose, and he lost no time in sending Vanderlyn to Paris to study art. So brilliantly did the young man acquit himself in the ateliers there that within a very few years he was the most distinguished of all American painters in Europe. In Henry Brevoort’s Letters are references to his commission to paint General Jackson, among others.
And now comes the pleasant part of this little story within a story:
In 1808, Aaron Burr was an exile in London. His trouble with Hamilton, his mad scheme of empire and trial for treason, his political unpopularity, had made him an outcast; and at that time, he, the most fascinating, and at one time the most courted of men, lived and moved without a friend. And he met Vanderlyn,once the wistful lad who drew pictures when his master wanted him to turn spokes. Now Vanderlyn was a big man, with a name in the world and money in his pocket, andAaron Burr’s warm and grateful friend. Burr was living in lodgings at eight shillings a week at that time, and his only caller was John Vanderlyn.
In 1812 it seemed safe, even advisable, for the exile to return to America again, but where was the money to be found? He was penniless. Well, the money was found quite easily. Vanderlyn made a pile of all his best canvases, sold them, and handed over the proceeds to his friend and erstwhile benefactor. And so Burr came home to America.
I think the nicest part of all this is Vanderlyn’s loyal silence about the older man’s affairs. It is likely that he knew more about Burr’s troubles and perplexities and mistakes than any other man, but he was fiercely reticent on the subject. Once a writer approached Vanderlyn for some special information. It was after Burr’s death, and the scribe had visions of publishing something illuminating about this most mysterious and inscrutable genius.
” And now about Burr’s private life,” he insinuated confidentially.
The artist turned on him savagely.
” You let Burr’s private life alone!” he snarled.
The author fled, deciding that he certainly would do just that!
Burr came home. But fate was not through with him yet. Dear Theo set sail without delay, from South Carolina, to meet her father in New York. He had been gone years, and she was hungry for the sight of him. Her little son had died, and father and daughter longed to be together again.
Her boat was the Patriotand the Patriot has never been heard from since she put out. She was reported sunk off Cape Hatteras, but for many years a haunting report persisted that she had been captured by the pirates that then infested coast-wise trade. So Theodosiabarely thirty years oldvanished from the world so far as we may know. The dramatic and tragic mystery of her death seems oddly in keeping with her life and that of her father. Somehow one could scarcely imagine Theo growing old peacefully on a Southern plantation!
Her father never regained his old eagerness for life after her loss. He lived for years, practised law once more with distinction and success on Nassau Street, even made a second marriage very late in life, but I think some vivid, vital, romantic part of him, something of ambition and fire and adventure, was lost at sea with his child Theodosia.
And now shall we go back, for a few moments only, to Richmond Hill?
Counsellor Benson (or Benzon) is generally supposed to have been the last true-blue celebrity to inhabit the famous old house. He was Governor of the Danish Islands, and an eccentric. Our old friend Verplanck says that he himself dined there once with thirteen others, all speaking different languages. . . “None of whom I ever saw before,” he states, ” but all pleasant fellows. . . . I, the only American, the rest of every different nation in Europe and no one the same, and all of us talking bad French together! ”
It was soon after this that the city began cutting up old lots into new, and turning what had been solitary country estates into gregarious suburbs and, soon, metropolitan sections. Among other strange performances, they levelled the hills of New Yorkis it not odd to remember that there once were hills, many hills, in New York? And right and left they did their commissioner-like best to cut the town all to one pattern. Of course they couldn’t, quite, but the effort was of lasting and painfully efficacious effect. They could not find it in their hearts, I suppose, to raze Richmond Hill House completely,it was a noble landmark, and a home of memories which ought to have given even commissioners pause,and maybe did. But they began to lower it yes : take it down literally. No one with an imaginative soul can fail to feel that as they lowered the house in site and situation so they gradually but relentlessly permitted it to be lowered in character. It is with a distinct pang that I recall the steps of Richmond Hill’s decline: material and spiritual, its two-sided fall appears to have kept step.
A sort of degeneracy struck the erstwhile lovely and exclusive old neighbourhood. Such gay re-sorts as Vauxhall and Ranelagh Gardens had encroached on the aristocratic regions of Lispenard’s Meadows and their vicinity. Brannan’s Gardens were close to the present crossing of Hudson and Spring streets. AndRichmond Hill did not escape! It too became a tavern, a pleasure resort, a ” mead garden,” a roadhousewhatever you choose to call it. It, with its con-temporaries, was the goal of many a gay party and I am told that its ” turtle dinners ” were in-comparable! In winter there were sleighing parties, a gentleman and lady in each sleigh; and but here is a better picture-maker than I to give it to youone Thomas Janvier, in short:
” How brave a sight it must have been whenthe halt for refreshments being endedthe long line of carriages got under way again and went dashing along the causeway over Lispenard’s green meadows, while the silvered harness of the horses and the brilliant varnish of the Italian chaises gleamed and sparkled in the rays of nearly level sunshine from the sun that was setting there a hundred years and more ago! ”
The secretary and engineer to the commissioners who cut up, levelled and made over New York was John Randel, Jr., and he has left us most minute and prolific writings, covering everything he saw in the course of his work; indeed one wonders how he ever had time to work at all at his profession! Among his records is this account of dear Richmond Hill before it had been lowered to the level of the valley lands. It was, in fact, the last of the hills to go.
After describing carefully the exact route he took daily to the Commissioners’ office in Greenwich, as far as Varick Street where the excavations for St. John’s Church were then being made (1808), and stating that he crossed the ditch at Canal Street on a plank, he goes on thus:
” From this crossing place I followed a well-beaten path leading from the city to the then village of Greenwich, passing over open and partly fenced lots and fields, not at that time under cultivation, and remote from any dwelling-house now remembered by me except Colonel Aaron Burr’s former country-seat, on elevated ground, called Richmond Hill, which was about one hundred or one hundred and fifty yards west of this path, and was then occupied as a place of refreshment for gentlemen taking a drive from the city.”
In 1820, if I am not mistaken, the levelling (and lowering) process was complete. Richmond Hill’s sad old windows looked no longer down upon a beautiful country world, but out on swiftly growing city blocks. In 1831, a few art-loving souls tried to found a high-class theatre in the old house,the Richmond Hill Theatre. Among them was Lorenzo Daponte, who had been exiled from Venice, and wrote witty satirical verse.
The little group of sincere idealists wanted this theatre to be a real home of high art, and a prize was offered for the best ” poetical address on the occasion,”that is, the opening of the theatre. The judges and contestants sat in one of the historic reception rooms that had seen such august guests as Washington and Burr, Adams and Hamilton, Talleyrand and Louis Philippe.
Our good friend General Wetmore can tell us of this at first hand for he was one of those present.
” It was,” he says, ” an afternoon to be remembered. As the long twilight deepened into evening, the shadows of departed hosts and long-forgotten guests seemed to hover ’round the dilapidated halls and the dismantled chambers.”
The winner of the prize was Fitz-Greene Halleck; and it was not at all a bad poem, though too long to quote here.
The theatre was never a brilliant success. To be sure, such sterling actors as Mr. and Mrs. John Barnes and the Hilsons played there, and during a short season of Italian opera, in which Daponte was enthusiastically interested, Adelaide Pedrotti was the prima donna. And one of New York’s first ” opera idols ” sang thereLuciano Fornasari, generally acclaimed by New York ladies as the handsomest man who had ever been in the city! For a wonder, he wasn’t a tenor, only a basso, but they adored him just the same.
Somehow it grows hard to write of Richmond Hilla hill no longer, but a shabby playhouse, which was not even successful. The art-loving impresarios spent the little money they had very speedily and there was no more Richmond Hill Theatre.
Then a circus put up thereyes, a circus–in the same house which had made even sensible Mrs. Adams dream dreams, and where Theo Burr had entertained her Indian Chief! In 1842, it was the headquarters of a menagerie, pure and simple.
In 1849thank Godits nightmare of desecration was over. It was pulled down, and they built red-brick houses on its grave and left its ancient memories to sleep in peace.
“And thus” [Wetmore once again] ” passed away the glories and the shadows of Richmond Hill. All that remains of them are a few fleeting memories and a page or two of history fast fading into oblivion.”
For once, I cannot quite agree with himnot when he says that. For surely the home of so much romance and grandeur and charm and importance must leave something behind it other than a few fleeting memories and a page or two of history. Houses have ghosts as well as people, and if ever there stood a house with a personality, that was sweet, poignant and indestructible, it was the House on Richmond Hill.
I, who tell you this, am very sure. Have I not seen it sketched in bright, shadowy lines upon the air above Charlton and Varick streets,its white columns shining through all the modern city murk? Go there in the right mood and at the right moment, and you will see, too.