Albany’s first museum was started in 1798 in a building on the corner of Green and Beaver streets. In the summer of 1808, two royal tigers were housed at the Thespian Hotel, a circus pitched its tent, and Ralph Letton started the Albany Museum.
The Albany Museum was located in the Old City Hall (Stadt Huys) on the northeastern corner of South Market Street and Hudson Avenue (today’s Broadway and Hudson Avenue). The Old City Hall was built in 1741 and was the site of the 1754 Albany Congress meeting where Benjamin Franklin first proposed the Albany Plan, a plan of union of the colonies that later was a basis for the U.S. Constitution. On its steps, the Declaration of Independence was first read to Albany on July 19, 1776 by the order of the Provincial Congress. With the construction of the new building on Eagle Street in 1808, the Old City Hall was converted into the Albany Museum.
The Albany Museum started as a privately owned collection of curiosities designed to draw visitors and school children from around the area. Letton solicited curiosities from customers in return for free tickets. John Scudder painted a panorama in the Museum and “Signor Faleroni” gave exhibitions of early electricity experiments.
On September 18, 1809, Henry Trowbridge joined, and eventually replaced, Letton. In May, 1810, the publication Medical Repository said that the Museum’s collection of minerals, shells and insects was “a very good beginning.” In 1792, William Murdock, a British engineer, first lighted his cottage with gaslights and in 1804 Murdock lighted the first building, a large cotton mill, with 90 gas burners in Manchester, England.
Gas lighting spread to the United States in 1816 when Rembrandt Peale’s Museum in Baltimore was the first to convert to gaslights. It opened to such a sensation that crowds came from miles around and the city of Baltimore allowed Peale to start the first private gas company to light the streets of Baltimore the same year.
Only months after Peale’s Museum, in March, 1817, Trowbridge decided to light the Albany Museum with gas. He installed piping and 120 gas burners on the walls and suspended in chandeliers from the ceiling. Trowbridge manufactured his own gas. Copying from the design of an oil lamp, glass globes were fitted around the gas jet to diffuse the light. There was a remarkable increase in light over the older oil lamps and candles. The Albany Museum could now remain open at night for a cost of 63 cents per night instead of Trowbridge’s previous cost of $1.87 to $2.25 per night for inferior light from oil lamps.
As with Baltimore the previous summer, the Albany Museum exhibition was a sensation. Crowds came from all around and every newspaper in the Northeast carried it.
In 1821, Trowbridge purchased the New Haven (Connecticut) Museum and brought its artifacts to Albany, advertising that his museum was now superior to any in the country except Peale’s in Baltimore. Wax figures were added to the displays at the Museum. A figure of Jesse Strang, who was hung in Albany’s Rutten Kill Ravine for murdering John Whipple at Albany’s Cherry Hill Mansion, and figures of a “balcony band” playing real instruments appeared.
The Museum also exhibited a “marvelous Phantasmagoria” in the lecture room where an actor in a monologue or a comic singer or dancer also occasionally appeared. A period publication says that it was in this room that “Yankee Hill” made his first appearance in Albany.
“Yankee Hill” was George Handel Hill, born in Boston in 1809. According to an early periodical, Hill became “stage struck” in 1829 and ran away to the city of New York, where he became typecast as the “American Yankee” in a series of Broadway plays, “when that type of character became tiring.”
Hill married Cornelia Thompson of LeRoy, Monroe County, New York “but the employ of country storekeeper became so irksome to him that he returned to Albany and sought work as a paper hanger.” However, before long, his acting career was rejuvenated at the Pearl Street Theater and he went on to a brilliant career that included two European tours until “wine and women took their toll” and he returned to Albany to become a dentist and support temperance reform.
In November, 1822, the lecture room at the Museum was converted into a saloon where concerts were given. On April 17th, 1827, the Museum placed an ad “for patronage, on the merits of a stuffed rhinoceros and a hermaphrodite orang-otang.” The rhinoceros was brought into the Museum as a skin and stuffed with sawdust. Wires were inserted to give him shape and he was sewn together with fish line.
In 1831, the Albany Museum was moved from the Old City Hall to a new curved building at the corner of State and Market Streets (State and Broadway, later site of the First Trust Company Bank). At the same time, Trowbridge’s collection was merged with the Troy Museum managed by Vanderwater & Meech and brought to Albany. Meech was Trowbridge’s nephew and became his assistant. The building housing the Museum was owned by Thorp & Sprague Stage Coach Lines that ran daily stagecoaches north to Saratoga and west to Buffalo.
During the move, artist John Leslie painted a new wall scene and the Cosmorama and Phantasmagoria were exhibited every evening. A yearly family ticket was $10, single gentlemen $3. One of the Albany Museum’s main attractions in 1830 was Calvin Edison, the “Human Skeleton,” 5 feet 2, 60 pounds.
The Museum existed on its regular collection “but there was generally some specialty to be seen or heard in the saloon, sometimes a dwarf, sometimes a strongman, sometimes a rope dancer and sometimes a comic singer.”
In June 1835, Phineas T. Barnum made his first appearance in Albany as a showman, occuping the saloon of the Museum. In June, Chang and Eng Bunker, the famous “Siamese Twins,” who were connected at the sternum arrived at the Musuem. Chang and Eng were each married and had several children. In July, Barnum brought the “Industrious Fleas” – a flea circus – to Albany.
In November, he brought Joice Heth, billed as the oldest woman in the world. Heath was advertised as 161 years old. Barnum said that she was enslaved by Augustine Washington, the father of George Washington, and was the first person to dress the future father of the country. He said that she was born on the island of Madagascar on the east coast of Africa in 1674.
Barnum said that Heth was totally blind and in fact her eyes had sunken so deeply into the sockets that they had disappeared. Her left arm lay across her breast and it was said that she had no use of it. Her fingernails were four inches long. She insisted that she had raised “dear little Georgie” and produced a bill of sale to show that the Washington family once owned her. Barnum said that she weighed 46 pounds.
On May 3rd, 1839, the Albany Museum offered vaudeville and concerts with Charles W. Taylor, stage director and W. Bell, manager. Taylor left shortly thereafter to start the Apollo Theater on Green Street, two doors from State. The Apollo did not work out however as Taylor was soon back at the Museum presenting Miss E. Randolph appearing with Yankee Hill.
The Museum underwent a thorough and artistic redecoration in 1841 by Signor Giuseppe Guidicini, an artist of the National Opera House in the city of New York. The ceiling of the Museum was a circular dome divided into seven sections with “arabesque and gold ornaments, intercepted by flying figures, bearing festoons and flowers.” A carved chandelier was suspended from the center. The drop curtain displayed a classical design showing the Temple of Fame with the Goddess of Liberty pointing to a figure of George Washington.
On opening night Charlie Taylor read an address. Among the performers were Mr. Kneas – pianist, Mr. H. Eberle – comedian and vocalist, Miss and Mrs. Eberle, Mr. Archer – basso, and Winchell – humorist. On the 25th of March, Mr. Whitney, an elocutionist, played Othello to Mr. Eddy’s Iago.
Eddy was a great hit in Albany. His widowed mother resided in Ida Hill, on the east side of Troy. When playing here he used to walk, or in colder weather, skate home to Troy on the Hudson River after the evening’s performance.
Eddy also was very successful in New York where he was known as a Bowery actor and “could tear a passion to tatters with the best of them.” A role in which he is best remembered is the Rag Picker of Paris. He died of apoplexy in Jamaica on the 16th of December 1875. Eddy was always a big hit at the Museum where he was acting manager for a time. “He left his wife, Henrietta Irving, without funds. She is still upon the stage .”
[Henrietta Irving was the actress who was having an affair with John Wilkes Booth when Booth appeared at the Gaiety Theater in Albany in 1861 at a time when Abraham Lincoln was also in Albany. Booth tried to break off the affair and Irving slashed his face and turned the knife on herself but, it was reported in Albany’s newspapers, she “did no real harm.” This may be part of the reason her husband, Eddy, died in Jamaica and she was “left without funds.”]
On June 29th, 1843, the Museum featured long time favorite Mary Gannon. “Little Mary Gannon” was carried onto the stage when she was three. She was known on some playbills as “Little Treasure.” It was said that the performances of Junius Brutus Booth, Edwin Forrest and Little Mary Gannon “brought the prestige to the Albany Theater which it holds to this very day .”
On the 14th of July, 1843, P.T. Barnum brought Charles S. Stratton to Albany. Stratton was only 6 years old, but Barnum dressed him in a tuxedo with a black silk top hat and walking stick and tried to pass him off as an adult. Barnum said that he was 25 inches tall and 15 pounds and that his real name was General Tom Thumb. The “General” toured the country and Europe over the next three years. One Albany newspaper later wrote: “He has of late, lost his attractive features having grown considerably and put on weight.”
On November 27th, 1843, John Rice became manager of the saloon in the Museum. He later traveled the country in various performances, retiring in 1856 to become mayor of Chicago. He built the first theater in Chicago and was a member of Congress when he died.
In May, 1844, the original Christy Minstrels appeared at the Museum followed shortly by the Knickerbocker Minstrels and the Kentucky Minstrels. The Christy Minstrels were organized in Buffalo by Edwin Pearce Christy in 1842.
The minstrel shows were something fresh, upbeat, sexy and new. They hit the performing arts of the time like rock and roll would hit the easy listening music of the late 1950s. The minstrel performers were brash, music was loud and fast, the banjo, popularized by black performers, was featured, lines were frequently bawdy and costumes outlandish. Performers, both black and white, frequently appeared in black face or white face and caricatured the black bands and African American life of the time. They were a huge hit and many imitators sprang up in a short time.
On July 19th , 1844, a competing floating theater, constructed by Gilbert “Doc” Spalding from the remnants of Sam Nichols’ Circus, was moored at the foot of Lydius Street (Madison Avenue). It was successful for a year and then sailed for New Orleans.
One of the leading Albany actresses of the time, “Mrs. George Jones was born Melinda Topping. She married the actor who afterwards set up as ‘George, the Count, Johannes.’ She did not live with him many years-dying in Boston of dropsy. Her last engagement was in the stock at Niblo’s Garden.”
The new Odeon Theater opened in 1847, and business at the saloon in the Museum suffered. Although some fine attractions were offered, business was often bad, but “Meech was always on hand to pay salaries promptly; small ones to be sure, but they were certain.”
Henry T. Meech was born in Worthington, Massachusetts in 1805 and came to Troy in 1821. He married Adeline Hendrickson of Albany and they had nine children. Meech built the Academy of Music in Buffalo that was run by his sons.
In May, 1847, it was decided to enlarge the Museum by adding two adjacent buildings on the north side. John M. Trimble was engaged to do the work. Trimble had built P.T. Barnum’s old museum, Genin’s hat store and about 40 other buildings. After the California earthquake, he built houses that he shipped by boat to San Francisco all ready to be put up. He built the Metropolitan Theater in New York.
The previous saloon in the Albany Museum seated about 350 people, but the new one was claimed to seat 1,500. Private boxes were installed. The interior was handsomely redecorated. The entire improvement cost between $9,000 and $10,000. The opening took place on July 3, 1848. Charlie Taylor wrote and directed two plays for opening night, The Water Witch and The Goblet of Death a “thrilling temperance drama with a moral the author would have done better had he heeded it.”
According to the same period article, “The opening address was given by H.V. Lovett, the stage manager and leading man. Lovett was an excellent general actor for many years, after which he retired, sold his wardrobe, and went into the vinegar business.” He later became deputy street commissioner in New York.
On the 14th of May, 1848, the Boston City Guard, escorted by the Albany Burgesses Corps, visited the Museum on invitation of the manager. On the 18th of July, the Viennese Children’s Choir performed for nine straight days filling the house.
On the 14th of August, 1848, Junius Brutus Booth opened to play for four nights. He starred as Othello, Sir Giles, Sir Edwin Mortimer and Richard III. He was to have played on the 17th, but he was staying at the Eagle Tavern & Hotel when it caught fire.
A period report said:
“August 17, 1848, the Great Fire was started by a washerwoman’s bonnet at the Albion Hotel, corner of Broadway and Herkimer Street, the flames spreading to the north by a strong south wind, sweeping both sides of Broadway and Church Street and crossing to the Pier, devastating everything to Maiden Lane and along Broadway to Hudson Avenue; but at night lessened by heavy rainfall; 600 buildings burned including the Eagle Tavern on Broadway.”
This report was followed by another headline: “August 19th. Jealous fire companies engage in riot at South Pearl Street and State Streets, many firemen are seriously injured.” Fireman James Hanley, who was shot during the riot, died.
As the fire spread toward the Eagle Tavern, the members of Albany Engine Company Number 9 helped Booth rescue his wardrobe from the burning building. Ever the thespian, Booth requested a red shirt to match the members of Engine Company Number 9, and then worked all day trying to help them put out the fire.
As curtain time approached, Booth, with his son Edwin, left the still burning fire and they went to the theater at the Museum where Booth asked directions to the gas room. Soon after, when it was time to light up the gaslights and gas footlights, the gas meter was found so battered that it could not be turned on. Booth left the theater with Edwin. Booth was seen the next day “over the river” at a boisterous party in Ned Clemens’ garden on a day he was supposed to be headlining in a show in Buffalo.
Booth spent the day telling stories and singing songs at Clemens’ party. Clemens was the editor of the Albany Bellows and State Basin Herald, a newspaper believed to have been published only “semi-occasionally” as Clemens’ finances would permit. James Duffy printed the newspaper for Clemens and Clemens therefore had nothing invested in it. However after the fire, Clemens promoted himself as “a sufferer of the great conflagration” and went around with a petition soliciting contributions “to set the Albany Bellows blowing again.” He raised $200, which caused things in his life to go downhill from there.
On another occasion, on a night he was supposed to perform, Booth was found drunk at the Hole in the Wall Bar in Trotter’s Alley. Trotter’s Alley was an alley running between the shopping districts of Pearl Street and Broadway. Angry after an audience had been stood up, and trying to prevent a repeat performance for the next day, Meech “influenced” the Albany police to arrest Booth.
A horse-drawn police wagon was sent for him and Booth was locked up in a cell in the debtor’s room of the old Albany Howard Street Jail. The jail would shortly be closed as: “The old Howard Street Jail has seriously deteriorated and a new jail is now built and the old jail used for the Albany Hospital.” Booth spent the night there and when the theater managers “came to fetch him” the next day he was more drunk than before.
Jim Boardman, the young man hired to do chores at the jail, was questioned. He said that Booth had asked him to “go buy him some brandy” but he refused, saying he would lose his job if he gave liquor to a prisoner. Booth then told him to just get the brandy and pour it into a pail on a table outside the cell as the aroma would help clear Booth’s head … and bring him a long stemmed Albany Dutch pipe as he wished to have a smoke. As the pail was far too large to fit through the bars of the cell, Boardman thought it would be safe. Booth used the pipe as a straw and Jim Boardman claimed he thought the brandy had evaporated.
On August 31, 1848, Mary Gannon headlined a show to benefit the sufferers from the fire and $200 was raised. Augustus Addams, George Holland, Barney Williams and Cooke’s Band volunteered their services.
Charles T. Smith was added to the company at the Museum in March 1849 and served as stage manager for several years. “It was under Charlie’s management that the ‘horse drama’ was first produced at the Museum. The “horse drama” (a hippodrama) came about mainly because someone bet it couldn’t be done; a wine supper was put up as the prize. Smith sent for “Derr, the Mazeppa of those days” to come to Albany and bring his horses.
This was the start of many productions featuring the horses, and Albany Museum passersby for years mentioned the heads of horses sticking out third floor windows of the Museum. There were no elevators at the time so the horses were lowered on a platform, connected to large pulleys, from the third floor to an area behind the stage. They were too heavy to be lifted however, so they were trained to walk up the stairs.
On July 16, 1850, “Irish comedian and sweet singer of merit” George Mossop appeared but died suddenly at his residence at Broadway and Van Tromp Street. A replacement Irish comedian, John Drew, took over for Mossop headlining at the Museum and also took over for Mossop by marrying Mrs. Mossop. After that Drew was nicknamed “the Pinch Hitter.”
After Drew’s death, Mrs. Mossop, using the name Louisa Lane, ran the Arch Street Theater in Albany. Since Louisa Lane had performed on stage since childhood and was often confused with her mother, also named Louisa Lane and also a stage performer, distorted stories sprang up as to her age. One local newspaper theater critic, trying to pay her a compliment, used his masterful command of the English language and said she was “a remarkably well preserved woman” and he “expressed particular astonishment that one so old could appear so full of animation.” He also said that she was “the oldest female stage manager in America.” For some reason these words of praise did not sit well with Lane.
On July 6th, 1851, Mr. W. F. Gillespie, a native of Albany, was given a benefit performance as a reward for his roles in The Bandit of Venice and Delicate Ground. He performed regularly until the Civil War broke out and “thereafter occupied a responsible position in the official force at the Albany Jail.”
On July 8th, Charles Walter Couldock made his first appearance at the Museum as Claude Melnotte. Couldock was born in London in 1815 and after 1858 starred as Abel Murcott in Our American Cousin in its triumphant American run. Our American Cousin was performing at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. on Good Friday, April 14, 1865 when it was attended by the President and Mrs. Lincoln and their guests Albany’s Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone, a day that would go down in history.
“On August 6th , Fanny Wallack played Hamlet for Mr. Morehouse’s benefit. Morehouse was later Fanny’s husband, and the original Drunkard in a play of that title, a role, we are sorry to say, for which his habits fitted him perfectly.” The great melo-dramatic actress ‘Madame Celeste’ made her triumphant return to Albany on the 27th of April 1852.
“Celeste” had been born in 1814 in Paris and “at a very early age … had been placed in the Conservatoire and there appeared with Talma and Madame Pasta.” During her first visit to Albany in 1828 “a young man named Elliot, who had nearly squandered a fortune left him by his father, a retired livery stable keeper in Baltimore, became enamored of her and after a short courtship, if it might be so-called, for he could not speak French and she could not understand English, … they became man and wife,”… if it might be so-called.
She returned to Europe and played to remarkable success. In 1834, she returned to America and in three years, it was said, netted $200,000. “Her success in America has been equaled only by Fanny Kemble and Jenny Lind.”
The month of May, 1852, brought Lola Montez accompanied by a troupe of twelve dancing girls. This once notorious woman was reported to have been born in 1818, but other reports said 1824. Her birthplace has been given as Montrose, Scotland; also Seville, Spain; and sometimes Limerick, Ireland. Her father was said to be a Scottish military officer named Gilbert and that her christened name was Marie Dolores Rosanna Gilbert but others said her father was Irish. Her mother was Creole and, in addition to Lola’s father, had lived with, or been married to, natives of Spain and Great Britain.
At 15, Lola married a British military officer whom she accompanied to India. She left him and went to Paris, then Munich where she appeared as a Spanish ballet dancer and met King Louis I, King of Bavaria. The King tried to make her Countess of Landsfelt but the appointment was opposed by Prime Minister Abel, “causing Abel and his administration to be dismissed.” A conflict arose at the university and Lola imposed upon the King to close the university, which made matters worse. A violent riot occurred and Lola fled.
She met up with an English military officer and although still married to her first husband, another English military officer, she married again. When news got out, she was prosecuted for bigamy, but she and the second English officer escaped to Madrid, where she deserted him and left for America. Luckily for her, both husbands died. In America, she became a successful dramatic actress appearing in New York, San Francisco, New Orleans and many other places. She married a Mr. Hull in California but that didn’t last long. She was now back in Albany where she was appearing with her troupe of dancing girls at the Museum and was also, at the same time, appearing in a speaking part at the Green Street Theater.
In February 1854, Uncle Tom’s Cabin opened and ran a remarkable four weeks. It was followed by Hot Corn, which was also very successful. But not all shows were that successful and the Museum began to struggle. Captain John B. Smith, the Albany bill-poster, told the Albany Mirror: “Business was very bad at times and Meech was at wits end to know how to get through.” Someone told him that Charlie Kane, the comedian, was a good painter, so Meech put him to work painting canal boats of which Meech owned a few.
Before long, Meech had most of the actors painting canal boats during the day under the supervision of Kane, and performing at night. However when he went to the basin one afternoon and found Kane asleep on a boat, he fired him.
Captain Smith also related: “But it wasn’t all fun at the Museum. We had a tragedy there once, and a real one too. Poor Dick Finn! He was the property man and one night he was examining the muskets to be used in The French Spy to see whether they were loaded or not. He had fired one out of the window and snapped another … and when he was blowing down the muzzle [to see why it didn’t go off], the charge went off in his mouth. It was between the farce and the principal piece. Melinda Jones, the wife of Count Johannes, came onto the stage (the curtain was down) and exclaimed ‘Great God, this man is killed,’ and catching him up in her arms (she was a very muscular woman) she carried him down one flight of stairs where Dr. March arrived in a few minutes.” Finn survived but never spoke again.
“Another time, when Celeste was here, the play called for a live tiger. In the middle of the performance the tiger leaped out into the audience and cleared it much faster than Meech ever thought possible.”
Another unusual act, probably one of Barnum’s, was “The Modern Hercules.” A very muscular man, dressed in a tight leotard performed many remarkable feats of strength. His finish was to hold a small boy by the boy’s toe, which was held in Hercules’ mouth, and spin the boy around faster and faster.
One night Hercules must have bitten down too hard because the boy went flying across the stage, but his toe was still in Hercules’ mouth. The band was quickly struck up and between the music and the loud applause the curtain was dropped.
On April 13, 1854, the company gave a benefit performance for Meech. The first time this was ever done. They said, “The Museum, now about closing, has been under your management for a period of 20 years …”
In 1855, the Albany Museum was closed. Doc Spalding, owner of an Albany drug store, purchased many of the curiosities for his floating circus.
Spalding had the curiosities transferred to a deluxe steamboat he christened the Floating Palace at the Port of Albany and sailed it south where it became a floating museum on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The Floating Palace sailed from Albany down the Hudson River and along the eastern seaboard to New Orleans and then up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers from 1855 until it caught fire and burned at New Albany, Indiana, in 1865. Meech said Spalding never paid a cent for the curiosities and it would have been better if they had all been burned in a huge bonfire in Albany for the amusement of the Albany public.
Henry T. Meech (ca. 1805-1870) is buried in Section 12, Lot 24 at Albany Rural Cemetery.
Illustrations, from above: An 1848 painting of Albany’s State Street by John Wilson showing the Albany Museum in the building with the colonnade on the right (courtesy Albany Institute of History and Art, view details here); E.G. Robertson’s 1797 depiction of audiences attending a phantasmagoria; Oil painting of Chang and Eng by Édouard Pingret, 1836 (courtesy London’s Wellcome Museum); “Little Mary Gannon” photograph by Charles Deforest Fredricks; 1844 sheet music cover for a collection of songs by Christy’s Minstrels with George Christy appearing in the circle at top (Boston Public Library); Junius Booth in theatrical costume ca. 1850; a detail from an 1854 advertisement for the hippodrama at Astley’s Amphitheatre, London; and Lola Montez (1847), painted by Joseph Karl Stieler for Ludwig I of Bavaria.