A Beer Loving Horse and a Frightened Politician!

0905beer_drinking_horse_1_ There is nothing I love more than a good brew and I would not hold it against  other members of the animal kingdom if they shared my love of beer. While doing research in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle I came across this amusing story of a politician who was nearly decapitated by a beer drinking horse. The article was part of a wonderful series called ” O’Loughlin Recalls.” The story  appeared on June 26, 1944, but the story goes back to a much earlier era, perhaps the eighteen nineties. It seems that back in the gay nineties one of the ways that rising politicians made themselves prominent in the community was by taking part in the local volunteer fire brigades, which often paraded on various holidays. The aspiring politician would ride in the parades mounted regally on the back of a fine white horse. O’Loughlin explained a long forgotten Brooklyn Thanksgiving custom. It seems that there were groups in each Brooklyn section called Rangers who organized Thanksgiving parades together with turkey shoots that tested the skills of local marksmen. O’Loughlin tells the tale of a young man, Tom Cullen, who would later go on to represent South Brooklyn in Congress. Tom was desperate to be seen on the back of a noble white horse one Thanksgiving many years ago. Like King Richard at Boswell field, Cullen was frantically searching for a gracious mount. The neighborhood was scoured for a horse and finally a noble steed was found. This horse worked during the week pulling a beer wagon for a local German brewery. There was one secret  about this noble steed that neither the Rangers, nor Cullen, knew. Its driver every morning would stop at the saloon of one of his customers and the horse was given a bucket of beer.  The horse grew to love the beer and the animal  would pull truckloads of beer happily through the streets of Brooklyn without even a protesting whinny, even on the warmest of days. The parade began and Cullen became an object of admiration. All was proceeding exceedingly smoothly until the horse reached the spot where he got his daily bucket of foaming brew. The horse recognized his favorite bar, stopped dead in his tracks and would not budge, thus holding up the entire parade and causing a great commotion. Such was the hullabaloo that the  rotund German saloon owner appeared at the door of his saloon to see what was happening. The horse recognized the publican and bolted  making  a bee line straight for the swinging doors of the saloon as the crowd on the sidewalk parted like the Red Sea in Exodus of the bible. The bolting of the horse was much to the chagrin of the now precariously mounted Cullen, who in fact,  was holding on to the reigns for dear life. Cullen barely  managed to duck under the door jamb as the horse galloped through the doors and  up to the bar where  the  jolly portly German was only too happy to serve him his usual quaff. The horse finished his beer quickly, swung his head vigorously two or three times and then let out a satisfied blast through his nostrils indicating that he was ready to rejoin the parade. The horse sauntered back out through the saloon doors receiving a wild ovation from the spectators lining the street. The horse acknowledged the ovation by bowing just like any well-trained circus horse.

If the horse was happy, then poor Cullen was still  frightened about the prospect of more equestrian saloons along the route. One of the Rangers was sent ahead to scour the route for saloons and Cullen took two or three detours off the parade route to avoid a repeat of his near decapitation.


Meserole Women and Greenpoint History

Women are too often neglected in history, but  I try to include them as much as I can,  In my last post I took a humorous look at the trials and tribulations of Mrs. New, but all joking aside it must have been hell raising five kids with a husband who ran off.

This post will explore the lives of two generations of Meserole women, both of whom married men twenty years or older than they were. No one, at least in the sources I have seen, has commented on this but striking  age difference.

First, let’s get some background on the Meserole clan. No family ever played a more important role in the history of Greenpoint than the Meseroles. Marrying into the family meant acquiring money and honor. For more than two hundred years their actions shaped Greenpoint history. Their men were bankers, industrialists, politicians and soldiers, but all of the family greatness would have been impossible without the strength of Meserole women: Magdalena Duryea Meserole and her daughter Mary Meserole Bliss. These matriarchs played equally important roles as wives, mothers, philanthropists and businesswomen. Without them the success of their husbands, sons and Grandchildren would have been impossible. Both Magdalena and her daughter lived well into their eighties and were noted for their intelligence, independence and energy. They helped make the family name highly respected and were both members of Brooklyn’s social elite.

The Ancestors of the Meserole family arrived in the area in the seventeenth century, not long after the settling of Greenpoint by Dirck the Norman. The Meseroles were part of the second, French Huguenot, wave of immigrants to arrive in Greenpoint. They were among just five Huguenot families, all intermarried, who made up the only area residents for a century and a half.  The first Huguenot to acquire land in Greenpoint was Peter Praa who In 1719 Pieter bought 164 acres in Bushwick from the sons of Dirck Volckertszen and all the Huguenot families that settled there were his direct descendants. Praa had four rich  daughters, two of whom married Meseroles.

The Meseroles were originally French Protestants, but the clan Patriarch, Jean Miserol, originally from Picardy, lost everything when France ended religious toleration, so he fled for Holland where he married another Huguenot refugee, Jonica Carten. They adopted Dutch culture and language and had an infant son, Jan, in the Netherlands, before leaving for America.

When the Meserole Clan arrived in New Amsterdam in 1663 Brooklyn was opening up to settlement. The following year Jean bought a farm in Bay Ridge. However, hearing about undeveloped land in North Brooklyn, he moved again buying another farm called Kykout, meaning the Lookout, in Dutch. The most important feature of this property was a knoll that allowed the family to see Indian attacks that were very much a danger in 17th century Brooklyn. The Kyckout farm was located in Williamsburg between North 1st Street and Broadway.

Jean Meserole not only fought in the conflict with Brooklyn’s Native Americans, but he evidently captured and enslaved them and slavery would be part of family history for almost a hundred and fifty years.  Jean lived at his North side farm until his death in 1695 and in his last testament he passed along as property a Native American woman and her child whom he must have taken as captive in war. His house and the bluff lasted until the 1850’s when the knoll was leveled for landfill and road grading.

Jean Meserole’s son Jan, who arrived from Europe as an infant, married Marytje Covert in 1682 and had five children – the first Meseroles born in Brooklyn. Jan was destined to become the largest owner of land in the Williamsburg area and Jan’s eldest son, John, Meserole Jr. married   Elizabeth Praa, and by inheritance and purchase, they ended up owning much of the land that today comprises Northern Greenpoint, as well as the riverfront area of Williamsburg. Another son, Jacob Meserole married another Praa daughter and their family farmed the entire south end of Greenpoint, building a house near the Bushwick Creek meadows between present-day Manhattan Avenue and Lorimer Street near Norman Avenue.

When Praa died in 1739 these two branches of the Meserole family gained control of most of Greenpoint’s farmland. A family daughter, Janite Meserole, would marry Jacobus Calyer, Praa’s grandson, so of the five families that first farmed Greenpoint, three had Meserole blood. The Calyer family, whose name became a Greenpoint street, farmed the western portion of Green Point, and lived in the house Dirck the Norman built near the mouth of Bushwick Creek. The transfer of power from the Dutch to the English in 1664 scarcely affected their daily lives and these Huguenot settlers continued to speak Dutch for generations well into the 1820’s.

Abraham Meserole, a son of John Meserole, built a Dutch style farmhouse early in the eighteenth century near where Newtown Creek flowed into the East River. The house lasted until 1875 when it was leveled to make way for industry. Magdalena Duryea married Abraham’s son and called the house he built home, She was his second wife for Meserole was a widower and she was twenty-nine years his junior.

No one at the time, not even Magdalena, had a sense of the Meserole house’s historic value. Although rich, she did nothing to save it from destruction at the end of her life. Magdalena was born in the equally historic Duyea house, the last original Greenpoint colonial house on Meeker Avenue and Maspeth Creek, which survived into the early twentieth century, but also vanished. However, we have pictures of it and others Dutch houses survive until now elsewhere in Brooklyn, so we know what Abraham’s house on the banks of the East River was like.

Women ran these houses and rarely ventured forth from them, so let us see what they were like. Dutch houses were set close to the ground with large steeply pitched roofs that overshot the walls of the dwelling shielding a porch. It had a stoop, which would become such a common feature of Brooklyn houses for centuries. The Dutch were a clever and practical people, so they created the highly practical half-doors and beds that folded up into closets.

The house had a large stone fireplace in the living room with a large chimney. The hearth was the place where the food was prepared and eaten and where the family in the evening gathered, warmed themselves at the great log fire, and discussed affairs. A huge log for the fire was rolled into place, then smaller logs about six feet in length would be piled in front and on top of the backlog. A roaring fire could easily be kept going to make the entire house comfortably warm except in bitter winter weather. Each house had its outdoor oven in which the busy housewife could easily bake a dozen loaves of bread or as many pies at a time.

Inside the house there was a large central hall with rooms opening off both sides of the hall. There were massive oak rafters and a garret above the hall and rooms. The middle of the main floor was lighted in the daytime either by the bull’s eye glass insets in the upper part of each door, resembling little portholes, or by opening the upper portion of the door. Knockers of brass or iron hung on the outside of the door to announce the arrival of a caller.

The house probably had very little furniture because there were few furniture makers and imported furniture was expensive, but it most likely had a paneled chest where the family kept prize possessions. There were few books, but there was always a family bible. A Dutch dwelling often had oak floors with sea sand used to help keep them clean.

Magdalena would marry Abraham’s son John who was born far ealier,  around seventeen fifty-one. and was destined to become a legendary patriot in the American Revolution. The Revolution was a period of suffering for all the families of Greenpoint and they learned the bitter reality of surviving wartime occupation. The Battle of Long Island was actually fought in Brooklyn just a few miles south of Greenpoint and members of the five Huguenot families fought with Washington and the colonials.

John Meserole did not hide his revolutionary feelings to the British well enough  and he suffered terribly for it. He fought for Washington’s army in the Battle of Long Island, and the British arrested him on suspicion of being a rebel. He was lucky to survive the ordeal following his arrest. His bravery, though, must have impressed  the teenage Magdalena who married the  much older war veteran. Like thousands of other American patriots, Meserole was put in prison, but luckily he  escaped alive. Eleven thousand in New York City alone were not so lucky to emerge alive.  He would marry twice, produce a lot of children and die at a ripe old age in 1833.

Magdalena had the task of managing the family slaves, but she was familiar with the role because her own family owned slaves too.  Slavery was an important factor in explaining why the Meseroles and other Greenpoint families supported the revolution. As slave owners, the Meseroles  personally profited from slavery and feared British actions to end it. The British promoted emancipating slaves as a way to defeat the Americans, offering enslaved African-Americans freedom if they would fight the colonists. Several thousand freed slaves actually fought for the British. The Meseroles were nervous their slaves would hear of emancipation offers and leave, robbing them of a source of wealth. Some sources claim that the Meseroles were kindly owners, but we can’t ask their slaves what they thought of their masters.

Magdalena would quickly bear four children, three of whom would live to adulthood. She proved to be a model wife, showing amazing ability to run both the family and the family farm. Remarkably energetic and organized with an extraordinary eye for detail, she ran the farm for many years when her husband grew too feeble and continued to run it well in the years after his death. She had real character and was extremely shrewd in making business decisions. Although much older, John would live a long time together with her, dying in 1833 when Magdalena was in her early forties and leaving her with three children to raise and a farm to oversee. She took his death in stride and proved herself more than capable of managing without him.

Before John died their daughter Mary would marry one of the outstanding figures in Greenpoint history, Neziah Bliss ,who came to Greenpoint not only to buy land, but to court Mary. Mary was hardly a beauty and some might consider her homely, but Bliss was a wealthy man and perhaps the eighteen year old Mary would never get a better marriage offer. Magdalena must have told her daughter that she had also married a much older man, which minimized the twenty-two year age difference between Bliss and his teenage bride. Mary’s marriage to Bliss would last more than forty happy years and his real estate development would make both mother and daughter wealthy.

The Dutch Reformed church on Franklin and Java was modest, hardly befitting the wealthy Meserole clan. The Meserole women were a driving force in building a new  grand edifice. They wanted to build a more beautiful and elegant structure. Meserole money funded a new Dutch Reformed Church, one of the most beautiful buildings in the area, on Kent Street Church. Following the War, plans were finalized for a larger church that was erected in 1869 costing over $50,00, a fortune at the time.

The Dutch Reformed Church on Kent Street was designed by William Ditmars, a well-known Brooklyn architect and the structure is a gem. The church is a mix of styles and elements a combination of Early Romanesque Revival and High Victorian forms, which made it a unique church, earning it landmark status. The massing of this church resembles that of the Early Romanesque Revival style churches built by other Protestant sects prior to and just after the Civil War. The focus of the Church of is the entrance portico located in the center of the building, which contains a round-arched entry supported by columns with carved capitals. Each of the flanking towers has a smaller entrance arch with similar columns and bands. Above the main entrance there is a large and imposing wheel shaped window. The Sunday school, designed ten years later by W. Wheeler Smith, is a beautiful two-story structure resembling a Renaissance Italian baptistery. The angled front facade was designed to give the illusion of an octagonal building.

The Meseroles commissioned a building that was far more ornate in style than most Dutch Reformed churches, which are simple and even austere in style. Perhaps it was too unique members of the church who resented its ornate façade and its high Victorian elements. The congregation probably  modified the lavish design. An Eastern tower was erected after the congregation decided not to build the 175-foot spire that had originally been designed for the structure. The Dutch Reformed congregation used the church until 1943 when it was sold to St. Elias Church a Russian rite Catholic Church. The last of the Russians in the St. Elias’ congregation died off and now the church sits empty, waiting for a new use.

Magdalena lived a long life, dying in 1879 at the age of eighty-eight. Well into her eighties she was still vigorous with a sharp mind. Her children had grown rich and her grandchildren were among the richest and most respected people in Brooklyn. She would leave Greenpoint in the final years of her life, moving in with her daughter Mary. Both mother and daughter were important members of Brooklyn society with entrée to the most exclusive circles of Brooklyn high society. Mary held soirees with two and a half thousand guests and an invitation by Mrs. Bliss was a sign of membership in the Brooklyn elite.

Mary’s son, Archibald Mesrole Bliss became one of the richest and most respected politicians in Brooklyn. He started his political career as Alderman, but was elected three times to Congress, but was defeated in his bid to be mayor. He used his political connections to start a highly profitable private street car company called the “Bushwick Railroad,” which ran cars from Grand Street to Greenpoint until 1947.

James New- The Same Old Story.

This is a very old story, but with a new twist. The central character in this old story is an English-born Greenpointer James New. When New was young, or should we say new, he and his newlywed wife, Mrs, New  came from England to Greenpoint. New knew that he could make a better life for himself on the other side of the Atlantic. Mrs. New thought that she could trust old New for she knew no better.

New arrived in Greenpoint in 1850 when the place was really quite new.  Greenpoint was very much a village then with a a few hundred people. The Eagle’s 1888 article said that the New couple were  “Rosy cheeked and handsome specimens of English yeomanry, socially inclined and possessed of enough ready money to enable the husband to provide comfortably for their household.” The article also that New had that old English fondness for horses and made money trading in horses. New set up the first stage-coach in Greenpoint, a line that ran to Williamsburg and then on to the Fulton ferry. The article states  that Mrs. New set up a house that was a bower of roses, vines and shrubs and inside the house was one of hospitality and comfort. The New house must have looked like an old English cottage.  It seemed that New and his partner were destined for financial success because of their new stage-coach venture, but few people knew the real news about New.

Poor old Mrs. New knew New often in the biblical sense and  had five kids with old New. Their house must constantly have been filled with ( Yes, you guessed it! with the cries of newborns!) Suddenly in 1852 the New family was rocked by horrible news. That old blaggard New, left one day and did not come back to the family. No one knew what happened to New and there was no news from New. It seemed ,though, that New had found somebody new. He and a young woman, who also had a few children of her own, ran off together to start a new life somewhere new. There were other stories about old New saying that he had run up a huge amount of debt and was fleeing his creditors.  All in Greenpoint were now agreed on one truth. James  New was bad news! but, hey  who knew about New?

Poor old Mrs. New was left with five young kids and no news from New. Her new situation was really difficult because she had no money to look after the kids. The Daily Eagle says though that she faced this tough situation in the old English way. She showed ” Admirable courage, patience and industry.” But you have to wonder with so many News to feed and with no New perhaps in a moment of deep anger and frustration she said to herself” No news is good news.”

The New kids were good kids, unlike their old man New, and the News knew that they had to support their mother. They worked hard, became successful merchants and became pillars of their churches and communities, but they still never had any news of old New. Thirty-six years went by with nothing new from New. Then, suddenly in 1888, you guessed it, there was a new letter in the post box and what did it contain? News of old New! New declared that he knew not if the News were still there. The letter from old New made the family recall the hard times they knew, but fillial affections were such that responses were sent.

It seems that with New it was the same old biblical truth; Pride goeth before the fall. New was so vain that he could not face the shame associated with his inability to repay the  debts he had run up and like many in 1852 he heard the news about the California gold fields, so he went off to strike it rich.However, it is an old story in the gold fields. New never had any luck.  New claimed that he wanted to make money and quickly return to his family, but I am sure you know the old truth that men like old New are liars. The article says that as time went by it became harder and harder for New to write to his family and confess his absence from his paternal duties. Finally, he seems to have made a lot of money in the newly admitted state of Montana where he entered a new field and  became a cattle rancher.  Although New was new to ranching he finally started to make some money, but New knew that he had a responsibility to his wife and the other News to give them some news of his whereabouts.

The Eagle article mentions that he was on his way back home to see the news, but the “Coldest reception he will receive will be that of the woman he forsook so heartlessly and  has performed the task he imposed on her so nobly that his money will not obliterate the memory of her struggles with poverty.

What did Mrs. New say to old New? The Eagle did not say.

So that is how the story of how  the disappearance of old New ended.

Paderewski’s Heart in Greenpoint.

Ignacy Jan Paderewski,  1860 – 1941) was a Polish pianist and composer, politician, and spokesman for Polish independence.He was one of the greatest pianists who ever lived and  was a favorite of concert audiences around the globe. His musical fame opened access to diplomats and the media. He was the prime minister and foreign minister of Poland in 1919, and represented Poland at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.

In 1939, after the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union triggered World War II, Paderewski–who was by then living in Switzerland–turned down Polish patriots who asked him to head a government-in-exile, saying that at age 79, his health was too fragile. But he eventually agree to head an advisory council for the resistance regime. After the German army swept through France in June 1940, Paderewski decided to move to the U.S. in order to promote Polish relief efforts. In September of that year, he arrived in New York on his 80th birthday, accompanied by his sister. But 10 months later, at age 80, he died of pneumonia in his Manhattan hotel suite. After learning of Paderewski’s death, President Franklin Roosevelt arranged to transport the Polish leader’s body from New York to Washington for a state funeral, in addition to memorial service that was to be held for him at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

Here is the Greenpoint connection. Before his death Paderewski became good friends with a Greenpoint State Assemblyman John Smolenski who was also an undertaker. When Paderewski died Smolenksi did the grim business of preparing the body, but following Paderewski’s instructions he removed the great pianist’s heart. There was a Polish tradition of leaving the heart in a place the person loved and Paderewski did not want his heart in communist Poland.

On July 3, 1941, the train carrying Paderewski’s coffin arrived at Union Station in Washington, in the midst of a thunderstorm. An honor guard of veterans from the Polish army, clad in pale blue uniforms, carried the coffin, and Jan Ciechanowski, the ambassador from Poland’s government-in-exile, and his staff escorted the body to the Polish Embassy on 16th Street NW., where Paderewski lay in state. On July 5, Paderewski’s remains rode on a caisson through the cemetery’s marble entrance, as a battery of cannon boomed a 19-gun salute in his honor, and the U.S. Army Band played a funeral dirge. The procession was headed by a squad of Polish exiles who’d enlisted in the Canadian armed forces. On a velvet cushion, one of them carried the Polish military cross, which the government-in-exile had awarded to Paderewski postumously. Perhaps because of American sympathy for Poland’s plight at the hands of HItler and the Soviets, the service attracted a big crowd of mourners. “Mingling with diplomatic officers wearing silk hats and striped trousers were throngs of plain Americans, some men in shirtsleeves and some women in slacks,” a wire dispatch on the front page of the New York Times reported.

Smolenski, however, kept the heart, but  when he died in 1953 he did not tell anyone what he did with the heart.

Rumors about what had happened to the heart ran rampant. “We had a lot of rumors – it was walled up in church somewhere, placed in a refrigerator in some florist’s somewhere. Crazy stuff,” Archacki said. ”But (the mortician) was a great man and a great patriot. I knew he must have done something with the heart.”

What the mortician did with the heart remained a mystery to Archacki and the Paderewski family until 1958. That year, Archacki’s mother-in-law died, and the family attended a service at a mausoleum in New York’s Cypress Hill Cemetery.

After the service, the family members split up and began wandering about the mausoleum, Archacki said. He was looking at plaques in the huge vault when his brother-in-law, normally a placid man, ran up to him in a state of excitement.

“He said, ‘Paderewski is buried here,’ ” he said. “I knew he wasn’t buried there. But I hurried over and I saw this marble slab” with his name. ”That was the heart.”

Archacki said he alerted officials in the Polish American Congress and other organizations about his find. But it was 18 years before the heart was enshrined at Doylestown at a Mass attended by more than 7,000 people, Clarence Paderewski said.

Archacki said the Doylestown shrine was chosen because of its importance to the Polish-American community. Its sister shrine, the Shrine of Our Lady of

Czestochowa near Krakow, Poland, is one of the holiest places to Polish Catholics.

The heart now rests inside a bronze carving in the shape of a spread eagle in the shrine’s memorial hall. In the middle of the eagle sits a bust of Paderewski. Below that is a golden heart, and below that, a piano keyboard. The heart was placed inside the hollow head, which was then welded shut, Clarence Paderewski said.

Fenians in Greenpoint! How an Irish secret society tried to invade Canada and invented the Submarine

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In going through old editions of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle I came upon two references to meetings of the Fenians. These meetings were held on May 24, 1865 and July 11th of the same year  at the Greenpoint Temperance Hall ( Thank God the hall and the Organization are mercifully dead!)  with the purpose of establishing a branch of the Fenian brotherhood in Greenpoint. The articles mention that a number of men took the pledge to become Fenians at the end of the meeting, but before we go any further we should explain who the Fenians were.

The Fenians were a group that wanted to liberate Ireland from British rule by armed insurrection. The roots of the Fenian movement begin with the failed rising for Irish independence in 1848. One of the leaders of the rising John O’Mahoney escaped to France and then to New York where  O’Mahoney founded the Fenian brotherhood in 1858.

O’Mahony’s presidency of the Fenian Brotherhood was being increasingly challenged by William R. Roberts.( in every Irish organization it is only a question of time until there is a split)  The Fenians raised money by issuing bonds in the name of the “Irish Republic,” which were bought by the faithful in the expectation of  being honoured when Ireland should be “A Nation Once Again.” Hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants subscribed.

What did they do with the money? They bought guns. With what aim?  The invasion of Canada. I have never been in the military and do not claim to be a military strategist, but there were about fifteen hundred Fenian soldiers and Canada is the world’ second largest country with a land mass of 3.855 million sq miles !! (9.985 million km²)

Obviously, this invasion was not so well thought out, but at least the irish would be able to fight the Brits in Canada, so at least there was some pleasure in it. Setting aside the fact that Canada had a huge land mass, there was also the minor detail that the British Empire had the world’s largest land army and the world’s largest navy.

They did try though. In April 1866, under the command of  O’Mahony, a band of more than 700 members of the Fenian Brotherhood arrived at the Maine shore opposite the island with the intention of seizing Campobello from the British. British warships from Halifax, Nova Scotia were quickly on the scene and a military force dispersed the Fenians. There was another unsuccessful attempt across the Niagara River. The American government realized that it could not let the attacks on Britain continue told the Fenians that it would provide them railroad tickets if they would just go home, which most of

them wisely did.

One of the Irish fighters invading Canada was WIlliam Dalton who raised a Fenian group in Ireland, was discovered and fled to America when the British government put a thousand pound price on his head. Dalton ended up in Greenpoint where he ran a butcher shop at 978 Manhattan Avenue.

The Fenians were far from done though. They collected large sums of money known as “Skirmishing funds.” It came to the attention of the Fenians that a young Clare man named John Holland had emigrated to the United States and was experimenting with sub marine craft that could attack the British navy from under the water line. In 1876, Holland’s submarine investigations came to the attention of the Fenian conspirators, probably through the offices of his brother Michael, who had been a member since 1869. Sympathizing with the Irish cause and seeing an opportunity for financial support for a working prototype of his evolving design, Holland offered to build the Fenians a small submarine that could  be used to attack British warships. After observing a 30-inch working model that Holland demonstrated at Coney Island early in 1877, the Fenian authorities agreed to fund Holland’s boat. It was the world’s first submarine!

John Holland’s first submersible,  known as Holland Boat No. I, was laid down in some secrecy at the Albany Iron Works in New York City. In the spring of 1878, the boat was moved to a second iron works in Paterson – more convenient for its inventor – and launched into the Passaic River there on 22 May.  In a second trial, Holland kept his boat on the bottom for an hour and returned safely, which so impressed the Fenians that they agreed to fund a larger version.

After some disputes within the Fenian Brotherhood about  use of the Skirmishing Fund for building submersibles, work on Holland’s second boat was begun in May 1879 at the Delamater Iron Works in Manhattan, ( by the way where John Ericsson of Monitor fame worked)  and it was launched into the Hudson River two years later. Despite continuing attempts at secrecy, the new submarine  attracted the attention of both the press and a half-dozen foreign navies, and when it became generally known that the new craft had been paid for by the Brotherhood, the New York Sun dubbed it the Fenian Ram, and the name stuck.

Holland moved the Fenian Ram into the Morris Canal Basin on the New Jersey side of the Hudson and commenced two years of experiments. By mid-1883, he was conducting experimental trials as far south as the Narrows of New York Harbor and along the Brooklyn shore, achieving a surface speed of nine knots and submerging to a  depth of 50 feet. Holland also staged several successful demonstrations of his  pneumatic gun, A forerunner of a sub’s torpedo system, that  shot  a dummy warhead both underwater and through the air  distances of several hundred yards.  He also continued tinkering with his design,  improving the ship’s maneuverability, speed, and range, while simultaneously building a 16-foot, one-ton model with which he intended to perfect his   ideas on submerged navigation.

Holland’s steady progress in improving the Fenian Ram, however, came to an abrupt halt in November 1883 as a result of bitter internal dissension in the Fenian Brotherhood over continuing funding for the Ram. One faction of Fenians sued the other to stop the testing of the ship.  Late one night, fearful of seeing the submarine seized in the ongoing legal proceedings, one of the warring factions gained access to the the boat  and towed it surreptitiously to New Haven, Connecticut. Holland’s 16-foot model was dragged away also, only to founder in the East River, swamped by unexpectedly choppy water. The Fenian Ram’s new custodians attempted to operate the submarine in New Haven Harbor, but their ineptitude led the harbor master to declare the boat a menace to navigation, and additional trials were forbidden. Consequently, the Ram was soon abandoned by its putative owners, and the Fenians offered no further backing for John Holland’s experiments on what they had called “the salt water enterprise.

The ship made its way back to New Jersey and today is an exhibit in the Patterson Museum.

In the book I have written I also tell the story of how the Greenpoint Fenians tried to bomb London!

Dynamite Johnny O’Brien – East River Pilot and International Arms Smuggler

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I was reading the Brooklyn Eagle’s August 25, 1943 edition in the archive when I came across the fascinating story of  “Dynamite” Johnny O’Brien who was the most famous gunrunner of his generation and a hero not only in Cuba, but in much of Latin America. The article was written by a man called Heffernan who spoke about his recollections of Greenpoint.  One of his recollections was that O’Brien often drank in a bar on Greenpoint Avenue was  and the captain also often used to moor his three masted schooner in Newtown Creek.  I cannot prove that O’Brien ever lived in Greenpoint, but he certainly spent a good bit of time there. It is very likely his brother Peter lived here.

Like many other nautical  people who later settled in Greenpoint, Johnny O’Brien was born on April 20, 1837 near the East River in what was called “The Dry Dock” section of Manhattan . His parents were farmers from County Longford, but in New York O’Brien’s father worked as a machinist at the East River shipyards. O’Brien was related to the famous Civil War Cavalry General Phil Sheridan. The O’Brien and Sheridan families even came to this country on the same ship

“My childhood playground,” O’Brien often said, “was the neighboring shipyards,” where he learned to spin oakum and wedge treenails into boats. He also  learned to sail and navigate on his older brother Peter’s ferry– then merely  a large rowboat with a sail – crossing the East River to Greenpoint. His brother would later work for years as  one of the pilots on the Greenpoint ferry,but Johnnie was so intoxicated with the sea that his parents finally let him leave home at 13 to sign on as a cook on a fishing sloop. He eventually piloted fishing and sailing yachts, served as apprentice on the pilot boat Jane, and spent time on a Union ship during the Civil War.

It was, however, during the Civil War that Johnny discovered his greatest passion- gun running, or as it was known then, fillibustering. Although he had been in the Union Navy, Johnny evidently was a sailor on board a ship that carried rebel guns to Mexico where they were later  smuggled back to the south.

“Being constitutionally disposed to giving orders rather than obeying them,” O’Brien took the required navigation training for a command rank as a pilot in the Hell Gate Pilots Association, forerunner of today’s Sandy Hook Pilots Association. He earned the nickname “Daredevil Johnny”  because of the chances he took, he nevertheless he  always got through the then treacherous currents between the East River and Long Island Sound without mishap.

Johnny was already almost fifty years old when he began to sail as a filibuster to Latin America. In 1885 he made several voyages to help the Colombian rebels. He soon was assisting rebels in Honduras with supplies of weapons too. O’Brien was a short man with a thick gray handlebar mustache and the proud stance of a buccaneer. But there was no bravado about him, a New York Tribune reporter wrote. “He is one of the most daring and clear-headed that ever lived, a man with a hair trigger intelligence that enabled him to act as swiftly as he could think.”

He soon became involved with Cubanos who were trying to liberate their country from Spanish Imperialism. The work was very dangerous because he could have been arrested by United States customs agents or by the Navy since there were laws that prohibited sending weapons to the Cuba. Spanish authorities would have summarily shot him had they ever caught him.

It was in 1888 that he earned his nickname.  A wealthy Cubano had purchased sixty tons of explosives and the yacht the Rambler, but needed a captain to sail it to Cuba. In those days people did not know how to denature dynamite for travel so that traveling with it was highly risky, especially on the seas.  a fearful storm full of lightning hit the ship and boxes of  the dynamite got loose from their  moorings and began to slide around the hold. Had they hit one another they would have exploded and sunk the ship. The storm was shaking the ship so violently that there was danger that anyone who went below to secure the boxes might be hit by the large cases and suffer harm. The crew was so frightened by the prospect of entering the hold that they refused. O’Brien entered the hold and managed to secure the violently tossing boxes of dynamite. He not only fastened the cases in the hold but also earned his famous moniker.

Working for the Cubans was dangerous for another reason. The movement was also riddled with spies and agents who would betray the rebels. Spain had an elaborate ring of spies who followed the Cuban rebels. Many ships were run aground by traitorous pilots who were paid by the Spanish who were waiting on the shore. The rebels were executed on the spot by the Spaniards who had set the traps.  The Cuban rebels had obtained a ship called the Bermuda, but unbeknownst to them one of the pilots was a traitor who had agreed to take the ship into a cove where Spanish vessels lay waiting to pounce on the rebel ship. Johnny had navigated the ship into Cuban waters when he gave the wheel of the ship over to the double-crossing pilot. Johnny was suspicious and quickly realized that he was being betrayed. He grabbed the pilot and threw him off the bridge before quickly righting the vessel. The pilot was shot and thrown overboard.  One of the rebels on board was the Cuban general Garcia who said, ” We will never forget you. YOu have kept your word where our own have betrayed us. ” All in all Dynamite Johnny made about forty successful trips to Cuba and he became so infamous that the Spanish offered him a bribe large enough to make him a rich man if he had given up gun running. O’ Brien refused the offer and became sympathetic to the Cuban rebels.

One reason why Johnny was able to evade the Spaniards so often is that their ships were slower, however, one time he chanced upon a Spanish steamer that was faster than his craft and there was no way to outrun her. There was panic on the part of the Cubans on the ship because they could not outrun the Spanish war ship, which was mounted with guns capable of sinking O’Brien’s unarmed ship. Dynamite Johnny was absolutely cool and level-headed in this dangerous situation and he realized that part of the cargo was a piece of field artillery destined for land combat, but not meant to be fired from a ship at sea. Simply firing the gun could blow up O’Brien’s vessel, which was loaded with boxes of highly volatile nitro. Nevertheless it was the crew’s only chance, even though firing the gun and hitting the Spanish ship seemed like a miracle. The crew quickly assembled the gun and lashed it to the bulwark of the ship and one of the Americans who was aiding the Cubans had been a gunner’s mate on the battleship Maine. When they pulled the cord to fire the gun nothing happened and terror gripped the ship,but the next time the gun did fire and they hit the pilot’s house of the Spanish ship ending the chase.

As O’Brien told the story, his repeated success  so angered Captain-General Weyler, then the ruler of the island, that he sent a message to the daring filibuster, through an American newspaper man, somewhat as follows: “Tell O’Brien that we will get him, sooner or later, and when we do, instead of having him shot along with his Cuban companions, I am going to have him ignominiously hanged from the flag-pole at Cabana, in full view of the city.” Cabana is the old fortress across the bay, visible from nearly all parts of Havana. To this, O’Brien sent reply saying: “To show my contempt for you and all who take orders from you, I will make a landing within plain sight of Havana on my next trip to Cuba. I may even land an expedition inside of the harbor and take you away a prisoner. If we should capture you, which is much more likely than that you will ever capture me, I will have you chopped up into small pieces and fed to the fires of  the Dauntless.  A few months later, this little Irishman, whom Weyler denounced as a “bloodthirsty, dare-devil,” and who may have been a dare-devil but was not bloodthirsty, actually carried out a part of this seemingly reckless threat. He landed a cargo within a mile and a half of Morro Castle. In May, 1897, two carloads of arms and ammunition were shipped from New York to Jacksonville where they were eventually transferred first to a tugboat and eventually to O’Brien’s ship the dauntless right under the noses of Federal Customs agents. Off Palm Beach, General Nunez and some sixty Cubans were taken from a fishing boat, according to a prearranged plan. The Captain landed most of the Cuban passengers and the weapons under the very guns, such as they were, of Morro Castle, and within about three miles of the Palace of Captain-General Weyler. All that time, a force of insurgents under Rodriguez and Aurenguren was operating in that immediate vicinity, and was in great need of the supplies thus obtained. Some of the dynamite O’Brien landed was used the next day to blow up a train on which Weyler was supposed to be travelling, but in their haste the Cubans got one train ahead of that carrying the official party. The row that Weyler made about this landing was probably never  forgotten by the subordinates who were the immediate victims of his rage.

After Cuban independence the newly independent government offered him a position as head pilot in Havana harbor if he would become a Cuban citizen. O’Brien did not want to become a citizen of Cuba and got the job anyway.  One of his jobs was taking the remnants of the battleship Maine, which had blown up in Havana harbor, and bringing them out to sea where they were sunk. O’Brien was the last man to set foot on the Maine.

At the end of his life O’Brien wanted to return to New York and see one last winter.  He died in 1917 at the age of eighty. I read that an Irishman is making a documentary film about his life. He has a facebook page.