Reconstructing the biography of a building is a way of obtaining information about the activities and beliefs of previous generations of inhabitants. The approach differs from archaeological research.
In a “building biography,” the structure is seen as the frame around which a family, group or institution is investigated in order to gain an insight into socio-economic or cultural conditions of a certain period.
Fort Stanwix and Stanwix Hall are two constructions associated with the political formation of the United States. The linked story of these buildings throws light on contrasting stages of migration from Europe to New York City.
The ancient trail that connects Lake Ontario and the Hudson River was a vital route for early travel and trade. When the Europeans arrived, their colonial presence inaugurated a battle for control of the access to Mohawk Valley which, over time, would make an impact upon American history.
In August 1758, British General John Stanwix ordered the building of a colonial fort at the location of present-day Rome, on the portage between the headwaters of the Mohawk River and Wood Creek, which connected to Lake Ontario.
The fort was active during the French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763, but then largely abandoned. During the American Revolution, it was occupied by American Revolutionaries in July 1776 and reconstructed by the 3rd New Jersey Regiment under Colonel Elias Dayton. Although renamed Fort Schuyler (for Philip Schuyler), the original Stanwix name stuck.
Born in Albany in July 1749 to a prominent family of Dutch descent, Peter Gansevoort continued his father’s business in brewing and lumbering. In 1775, he joined the Albany County Militia and in June 1776 took command of the 3rd New York Regiment. Having succeeded Elias Dayton in May 1777, the fort was besieged three months later by British troops that had invaded from Canada and included German, Loyalist, and Canadian soldiers and their Indigenous allies.
Colonel Gansevoort and his men refused the surrender summons issued by Irish-born General Barrimore ‘Barry’ St Leger and in a battle lasting twenty-one days they successfully defended the position.
Defeat not only thwarted British efforts to take the northern colonies, it also helped trigger American alliances with France and the Netherlands. Peter went into history as the “Hero of Stanwix.” After the Revolution, Gansevoort settled back into life in Albany until his death in July 1812.
Gansevoort was the maternal grandfather of Herman Melville, the author of Moby-Dick, who was born on August 1, 1819, in Pearl Street, Manhattan. His father Allan Melvill (the original spelling of the name), an importer of French luxury items, died young and was deep in debt, leaving his wife Maria Gansevoort Melvill destitute.
Maria moved in with her affluent parents who helped educate her children. Herman attended Albany Academy which specialized in preparing pupils for a career in business. In 1838, he enrolled at Lansingburgh Academy to study engineering and surveying with the ambition to find a job on the construction of the Erie Canal.
In Albany in 1833, Melville’s uncles Peter and Herman Gansevoort ordered the building of Stanwix Hall at the east corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane on land where Gansevoort’s Dutch great-grandfather had settled in the 1600s and established a brewery.
A five-story marble construction with a huge dome, the Hall housed offices and conference facilities. When he was elected President of the Albany Philo Logos debating society in February 1838, Herman was given rent free use of one of the elegant meeting rooms by his uncles.
In later years when Melville visited Albany, he often made Stanwix his temporary home. He named his second son Stanwix in honor of his illustrious ancestor.
The Hall became a site of grand assemblies, balls and concerts. By the mid-1840s it transformed into one of Albany’s most elegant hotels and remained so for at least half a century. Over time, its status diminished. The hotel was razed in 1933 to make way for new utilitarian buildings.
Politicians, Firefighters & Gangsters
William Poole was born in Sussex County, New Jersey, in July 1821 to English immigrant parents. Roughly ten years later his family moved to Manhattan where his father opened a butcher shop at Washington Market. As a young man, he was trained to continue the family business which partly explains his nickname “Bill the Butcher.”
An imposingly tall and strongly built man, he had an explosive temperament. He was a notorious street fighter who used the dirty means of kicking, biting and eye-gouging to hurt his opponents. He was also a professional knife handler and gained the dubious reputation of being one of the city of New York’s toughest “rough and tumble” fighters.
Politics at the ward level in New York were dominated by sometimes dodgy politicians who were known to use the “services” of bouncers and brawlers to attack ballot places and intimidate voters. When he was in his twenties William joined the Howard (Red Rover) Volunteer Fire Engine Company #34 working on Hudson and Christopher Streets in the West Village. These crews were tied to different street gangs who would often clash at the scene of a fire. If rival brigades arrived simultaneously, its members might battle each other for access even as the flames raged on.
Bill the Butcher was closely aligned with his fellow Washington Street butchers and firemen known for their red shirt, pants tucked into boots and a stovepipe hat – a milieu of young men known as Bowery Boys.
William Poole presented himself as a home-born American. He helped turn the Bowery Boys more nativist, especially hostile to newly arrived Irish (and German) Catholics. Attacks on immigrants in Manhattan’s Five Points happened regularly. Soon, Irish men were assembled to hit back. The street level violence echoed the nativist “debates” happening at City Hall and responded to a stream of sensationalist press reports aimed against immigrants.
By the early 1850s Bill was a married man with a young son, living in a small brick house at 164 Christopher Street, right by the Hudson River. Around that time he closed his butchery business, opening a bar known as the Bank Exchange. He refused entry to his saloon to all those people who did not eat meat on Fridays. Catholics were not welcome in his house.
John “Old Smoke” Morrissey was a bare-knuckle boxer. He had been born in County Tipperary who had immigrated with his family to Troy as a small child. Ten years younger than Poole, he moved to New York as an “emigrant runner,” meeting newcomers at the dock.
When he won the American Heavyweight Championship in 1852, Morrissey became one of America’s first worldwide celebrity figures as a “Champion of the Irish.” This put him squarely in the sights of New York nativists and made him an enemy of Bill the Butcher.
A fight between the two was arranged on August 8, 1854, at seven o’clock in the morning, on the pier at the foot of Amos Street (formerly the name of West 10th Street). At this “Battle of Amos Street Docks” (unbeknownst to Morrissey, squarely in Poole’s territory) the Champion ended-up at the wrong end of Poole’s buddies and was badly beaten. The Butcher celebrated his victory with friends on Coney Island, Morrissey sought top meet him again, this time, one-on-one.
The conviction that the mass influx of “alien riffraff” would destabilize society was wide;y held. Amongst “Native Americans” (as these second and third-generation settlers called themselves) alarm was raised about the wave of immigration for ethnic, religious and economic reasons. They were anxious that incomers would undermine their Protestant religion, threaten their liberty by their loyalty to the Pope, and usurp their jobs.
By the 1850s, more than half of the population in the city of New York was Irish Catholic. Nativists feared that papists would soon outnumber old-stock American Protestants. As cultures clashed, conspiracy theories abounded.
In 1836 Maria Monk had published an expose entitled Awful Disclosures. She claimed to have gone undercover in a cloister, accusing priests of raping nuns and other acts of debauchery (including the murder and secret burial of babies). She was eventually unmasked as a fraud, but her anti-Catholic hoax was a bestseller nevertheless and remained in print for many years after publication.
This increasing nativism led to the foundation in 1849 of the Order of the Star Spangled Banner (OSSB), an oath-bound secret society initiated by Charles B. Allen. Its main aim was to protest and prevent the explosive rise of Catholic immigration into the United States.
To join the Order, a candidate had to be at least twenty-one years old and able to show a pedigree of Anglo-Saxon Protestant stock. There were passwords and hand signs. Members made a pledge never to betray the society by vowing complete silence about its activities.
If asked anything by outsiders, they would respond with “I know nothing.” This practice caused Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New-York Tribune, to label them “Know Nothings.”
The OSSB formed the nucleus of the Know Nothing movement which ran candidates in the 1855/6 elections under the American Party ticket. At its height in the 1850s, the party included thousands of local politicians, more than a hundred elected congressmen, eight Governors, a controlling share of half-a-dozen state legislatures from Massachusetts to California.
Its representatives aimed at restoring their idealized vision of an America ruled by virtues of nationalism, rugged self-reliance, temperance and puritan Bible-worship. They meant to Make America Great Again by ignoring slavery and focusing their energy on immigration instead.
The impact of the Know Nothing message became clear after the murder of William Poole on the night of February 25, 1855. Drinking in the bar of another Stanwix Hall in the city of New York, the latter had come face to face with Morrissey. The two exchanged insults but the stand-off did not end in violence.
Later that night, Poole returned to the Hall and grappled with supporters of Morrissey, including Lewis Baker, a Welsh-born immigrant, who shot Poole in the chest from close range.
Baker and Morrissey were arrested for murder. Morrissey’s charges were dropped as he wasn’t there, but Baker, who claimed self-defense, was tried twice in 1856. Each trial resulted in a hung jury, and he was eventually released by Judge Charles Peabody of the New York State Supreme Court.
Although Poole survived for nearly two weeks, he died on March 8, allegedly uttering last words that would inspire the nation’s Know Nothings: “Goodbye boys, I die a true American.”
His funeral took place three days later at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. Never before had New York seen such an occasion. The words “I die a true American!” were emblazoned upon the side of the hearse carrying his flag-draped coffin. A procession of 155 carriages and 6,000 mourners trailed in tribute through the city streets as it crawled its way to the cemetery.
Amongst the mourners were local politicians, volunteer firemen, a fifty-two-piece band and members of the OSSB. They were all honoring an American hero who had sacrificed his life to protect fellow citizens from the perils of Catholic immigration.
In 1912 the House Committee on Immigration questioned if Italians could be considered “full-blooded Caucasians”; from the end of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century Asian immigrants were excluded from naturalization based on their non-white status.
Entrance restrictions in the early 1920s ended virtually all immigration except from Northwestern Europe. At present, objections are raised against people arriving from Latin America or the Middle East.
The context may differ, but the themes are consistent. Bill the Butcher’s brand of xenophobic nativism has never lost hold of the United States.
Illustrations, from above: An 1850s nativist Know Nothing banner; Peter Gansevoort by Gilbert Stuart, 1794 (detail); Stanwix Hall in Albany; a nineteenth-century butcher (suggested by some to be William Poole); “Instrument of Torture Implements” in Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieuy Nunnery of Montreal (1836); Life of William Poole, with a Full Account of the Terrible Affray in which He Received His Death Wound (1854); and a recently installed memorial stone on Bill the Butcher’s granve in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn.