American artists and illustrators have documented events through the nation’s history, producing a vital visual record of collective experiences. One illustrator, who can still be called upon to look back through time, is Edwin Forbes, who lived in the Long Island village of Flatbush, before it was annexed into Brooklyn, and eventually New York City. He was a noted illustrator of the Civil War and also an inventor of the horse racing starting gate.
Forbes is best known for his work during the Civil War, where from the field with the United States Army he provided the public with a plethora of graphic sketches from the midst of camp, march, hospital, bivouac and battlefield, through the illustrated newspapers of the day. This eye-witness to the war was only twenty one years old when Fort Sumter erupted and he began faithfully and sympathetically capturing all aspects of those who followed the flag.
Edwin Forbes was a pioneer embedded reporter, which hastened his images to the printing presses of the day. After the struggle, and returning home to New York, he recompiled his original work into more refined etchings. In our time, much of his work is readily available in online repositories, giving us a unique first-hand record of many aspects of the unfortunate conflict.
Through his field work during the many skirmishes, their preparation and the various outcomes, and life in camp, Edwin Forbes honed his affinity for presenting equine images, sometimes literally under fire. As the primary method of transport, horses and mules were essential to all aspects of an army at that time. The men who relied on these animals, and spent so much of their conscious and unconscious time with them, such as Forbes, developed an enhanced sensibility of equine characteristics. After the great struggle Edwin Forbes was able to make a living through animal portraiture, with race horses becoming a specialty.
Many of his fine illustrations found their way into what is considered the first sporting paper in the country, which was titled The Spirit of the Times. The name for this respected broadsheet came from a quotation in Shakespeare’s King John, “The spirit of the times shall teach me speed.”
Forbes’ efforts in The Spirit were always impressive, and have become a wonderful record of horse sport in the late nineteenth century.
New York State had long been home to equine contests, with the Hempstead Plains on Long Island used for competitions soon after the British control of the colony replaced that of the Dutch. Racing at Saratoga was established by former pugilist turned Congressman John Morrissey, with the support of like-minded sportsman and gamblers, only a month after the pivotal Civil War Battle of Gettysburg.
Thoroughbred and Standard-bred race tracks were widespread across the Metropolitan New York area while Edwin Forbes was involved with the sport, with some of the most popular venues in Westchester County and New Jersey. Brooklyn alone had three race tracks in the vicinity of Coney Island.
This burgeoning pleasure dome for urban New Yorkers, Coney Island, was framed by two deep embayments, Gravesend Bay to the west and Sheepshead Bay to the east. The Gravesend Race Track, north of the Coney Island Creek waterfront, began holding contests shortly after the end of the Civil War as the Prospect Park Fair Grounds, eventually changing to the geographic name for the facility. The Sheepshead Bay Race Track began racing in 1889, and would develop into one of the finest sporting venues in the country with the highest level of competition. On Coney Island, the Brighton Beach Track was on the oceanfront beach, along with a resort hotel which opened in 1879.
Edwin Forbes took not only an interest in the animals, but also in the dynamics of racing and how events were staged. Thoroughbred racing of that era employed a person with a signal flag to hold horses in check at the start until all had reached the equitable datum of a chalk line, before they were sent on their way with the drop of the pennant. False starts were frequent, and occasionally some starters were left at the post while others were able to gain the starting line with a slight edge over their foes. In a game of inches,with money in the balance, a suspect start was an undesirable situation at any track.
Edwin Forbes was also a practical inventor, and in 1891 devised a starting gate which he hoped would improve the fairness of thoroughbred racing. The operation of his apparatus might be described as a mechanically re-tooled cuckoo-clock, with the notion of assisting the traditional human starter. He conceived of two upright hollow posts, on either side of the track, that supported lift arms and were joined by a rod which held a screen. With the release of a lever by the starter, counterweighs would drop over pulleys inside the hollow posts which fairly noiselessly and rapidly lifted the screen vertically, sending the horses on their way. The quiet sweep motion caused less upset to the excited horses at the
post than the flapping of the start flag.
On January 9, 1892 The Spirit of the Times, which even at that time had a global distribution, published an accurate rendering of Forbes’ starting device. The Spirit, publishing on this subject, placed Edwin Forbes in an awkward position with an important economic patron. The editors further mentioned that Edwin Forbes’ device had failed to impress in a trail at Brighton Beach race course in Brooklyn. Forbes felt his device was not given a fair trial, due to certain powerful betting owners preferring to take their chances of getting the best of the start in the old fashioned way, where they might gain an occasional advantage.
“THE SPIRIT had no intention to misrepresent facts in reference to Mr. Forbes’ starter. We were under the impression that some sort of a trial had been made at Brighton. However, as Mr. Forbes says in his letter that measures are now being perfected to place the starter in operation on a new track in the vicinity of New York, we shall probably have a practical demonstration of its utility the coming season.”
Shortly afterward notice was received from Australia, in the publication Austratasian (of Melbourne), which reported:
“Another successful trial was made recently at Sandown Park of a new starting machine. Nine horses were sent away to an excellent start.”
The editors of The Spirit on March 24, 1894 added, “The successful trials of starting machines in Australia will no doubt impress racing men here favorably with the apparatus invented by Mr. Edwin Forbes, of Flatbush, L. I. especially as Mr. Forbes claims that the Australian machines are constructed upon the same principles that are embodied in his invention.”
The following year on January 12, 1895, The Spirit placed the patent drawing of Forbes’ “Ideal Starter” on their cover. This depiction illustrated an article about what they termed the “automatic staring machine” he designed and those from Australia, then arriving at California tracks. This excellent rendering makes clear that in any era an inventor who could illustrate their own design has a large advantage. This edition also mentioned the likelihood that the matter would be taken into the courts before the question of the legal right in the patent was settled.
Edwin Forbes, by this time, had lost the use of his right arm, and taught himself to draw with his left. He was suffering a kidney affliction known as Bright’s Disease which would take his life in early March of 1895 at his home in Flatbush at age 56. Forbes had only recently completed The Army Sketch Book: An Artist’s Story of the War before his death. He left a widow, Ida, and a young daughter, who hoped the Federal Government would purchase the Civil War sketchings for posterity. When that failed to materialize The Spirit ran a series of notices for a lengthy period, which let the racing public know Forbes’ work was available, and on display in their Manhattan office, the sale of which would benefit his family.
Less than a year after the death of Edwin Forbes, The Spirit of the Times ran a story with various expressions of opinion relative to the Australian starting machine very much in use by prominent turfmen at San Francisco. Starter J. F. Calder was quoted, “The machine is all right enough, but the boys [jockeys] have to be educated up to it, and perhaps the horses also. I have no fear of its ultimate success.”
Prophetic words indeed, as the much evolved starting gate with jockeys and horses training and using the apparatus daily, is a common sight across the country, into our time. It seems an injustice that Edwin Forbes, and his highly developed understanding of equine action, finished out of the money with his insightful idea.
Ida Batty Forbes, a schoolteacher by profession who had combined with her late husband to produce an imaginative learn-to-read primer biography of General William T. Sherman, in 1901 sold the Forbes Collection to financier J. P. Morgan. Through his gift to the Library of Congress, a grateful posterity is able to appreciate and learn from the creations of Edwin Forbes.
Illustrations, from above: Edwin Forbes’ Civil War sketch considered the earliest-known illustration of the use of cigar-box fiddle (colorized for Smithsonian Magazine); “The Race for Camp” Civil War illustration by Edwin Forbes (1894); The Irish Brigade holds a steeplechase race on Saint Patrick’s Day 1863 during the Civil War (Edwin Forbes, March 17, 1863); Map showing three Brooklyn race tracks – Gravesend, Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach – and their proximity to Coney Island (Robinson’s Atlas of Kings County New York, 1890); Image created by Edwin Forbes and published by Currier & Ives, ca. 1877 (Library of Congress); The Spirit of the Times cover depicting the thoroughbred horse automatic starting machine invented by Edwin Forbes; and Edwin Forbes with his mare “Kitty” from a tin-type made in Beverly Ford, VA, in August 1863 (The Army Sketch book: An Artist’s Story Of The War, Vol. 1 by Edwin Forbes, 1894).