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Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Around the World in 16-1/2 Minutes

Ninety-nine years ago today, the New York Times decided to find out how long it would take a commercial telegram to circle the globe. The record had been set in 1903, when President Roosevelt celebrated the completion of the Commercial Pacific Cable by sending the first round-the-world message in just 9 minutes. However, that message had been given priority status and the Times wanted to see how long a regular message would take -- and what route it would follow.

At 7:00 p.m. on August 20, 1911, the
Times telegraph operator on the seventeenth floor of the newspaper's offices in Times Square sent a telegram that stated simply: "This message sent around the world." Sixteen-and-a-half minutes later, the same telegraph operator received his message back. In the intervening minutes the telegram had traveled from New York westward, stopping in:

  • San Francisco
  • Honolulu
  • Midway Island
  • Manila
  • Hong Kong
  • Saigon
  • Singapore
  • Madras
  • Bombay
  • Aden
  • Suez
  • Port Said
  • Alexandria
  • Malta
  • Gibraltar
  • Lisbon
  • The Azores
  • and then back to Times Square.
The Times was particularly struck by the portion of the route sent by the Indian Government telegraph from Madras to Bombay. "This line," they wrote, "traverses the domains of the Nizam of Hyderabad, the most powerful Prince in India, from the Coromandel to the Malabar coast, crossing the Indian peninsula and passing through great forests inhabited by man-eating tigers, panthers, boa constrictors, and pythons, and singing its way past the lonely residence of the American missionary, whose only gleam of civilization is the buzzing on the telegraph wires near his bungalow."

Today, the building where the
Times dispatched their record-setting message is called One Times Square and is best known for its news zipper and the dropping ball on New Year's Eve. The Times moved out in 1913 and eventually sold the building in 1961.





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Read more about One Times Square and the history of the area
in 
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.


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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Robert Fulton and the Age of Steam


August 17, 1807 -- 203 years ago today -- was a pivotal moment in American history. Today marks the anniversary of the launch of Robert Fulton's North River* Steamboat. The boat left its slip in Lower Manhattan and steamed up the Hudson River, arriving in Albany fifty-two hours later. This maiden voyage proved that steam was an efficient and safe mode of transport and while clipper ships would not instantly disappear, the introduction of steam vessels forever changed maritime transportation.

Fulton started life as a painter, but his penchant for mechanical engineering led him to design the first practical submarine (which he tried, in vain, to sell to Napoleon) and then to turn his attention to steam navigation. In France, Fulton met Robert Livingston, the U.S. Minister and former Chancellor of New York State, who decided to bankroll Fulton in order to secure New York's preeminence as a commercial port. Fulton returned to the U.S., set up shop in Manhattan, and perfected his engine.

As we write in
Inside the Apple:
On August 17, 1807, the boat, christened with the rather prosaic name North River Steamboat, left New York harbor en route to Albany. It arrived 52 hours later: 32 hours of that was steaming, and twenty hours was a diversion to Robert Livingston’s Hudson River estate, Clermont (where, presumably, the Chancellor took a long nap). The return trip, the next day, took just 30 hours and within a month twice-weekly service was scheduled between the two cities, averaging 36 hours per trip. (Hudson River sloops, by contrast, averaged a week for the same trip.)
In her own day, the boat was only called by her own name, North River Steamboat, or simply “The Steamboat” (since she had no competition). It was only after Fulton’s death in 1815 that the name of Livingston’s estate, Clermont, became commonly associated with the vessel.
Chancellor Livingston was more than just Robert Fulton's patron -- he soon became his father-in-law. When Fulton died in 1815, he was buried in the churchyard of Trinity, Wall Street. However, he is not buried underneath the large marker in the south side of the yard that bears Fulton's portrait. That marker was erected by the Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1901 to stand in a high-traffic part of the graveyard and draw attention to their hero. Fulton is instead buried in the Livingston family's nondescript vault in the north side of the graveyard. If you happen to be downtown today, stop by Trinity and pay your respects to the man who in many ways secured New York's place as the economic capital of America.

* Until the 20th century, the Hudson River was
more commonly known as the North River.

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Read more about Robert Fulton and the age of steam
in 
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Beginnings of the NYPD


On August 12, 1658 -- 352 years ago today -- New York's first municipal police force was founded. Of course, back in 1658 New York was still New Amsterdam and the police force went by another name -- the rattle watch.

The name derived from the wooden rattles that the patrol would carry. Eight men walked the streets of New Amsterdam from dusk to dawn; they would call out the hours all night long and, if they heard anything, shake their rattles to scare the person away. It was a system specifically designed to avoid confrontation. Membership in the rattle watch rotated amongst the
burghers of New Amsterdam and if you tried to shirk your duty, you'd be fined. (You would also be fined if you were caught sleeping on the job or if your uniform was deemed untidy.)

Despite the fact that the rattle watch was paid for by a tax levied on all citizens, it was disbanded briefly in 1660 due to lack of funds. The patrol was reorganized the next year and continued through the English Colonial period until evolving into a paid, professional police force.

In our research, we came across this groovy WPA era poster (above) that was part of a series commemorating the "History of Civic Services in the City of New York." Note that the date used on the poster for the establishment of the rattle watch is less accepted by historians today, but it's a great poster nonetheless and a reproduction can be purchased at Amazon.com for just $7.90.




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Read more about Dutch Colonial New Amsterdam
in 
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.


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Monday, August 9, 2010

The Assassination Attempt on Mayor William Jay Gaynor

Today marks the centennial of the assassination attempt on New York's mayor, William Jay Gaynor. We wrote about Gaynor and the attempt on his life back in November, on the 100th anniversary of his election. You can read about it here. (Note that the ship Gaynor was on at the time of his attack was the Kaiser Wilhem der Grosse, which just a few months earlier had been part of the spectacular Hoboken fire, which we blogged about back in June.)


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Read more about famous New York City mayors in



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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Libel Trial of John Peter Zenger

Today marks the anniversary of one of the most important legal cases in American history—the trial of New York City printer John Peter Zenger. Two hundred and seventy-five years ago today, on August 4, 1735, Zenger stood trial for libeling New York’s colonial governor, William Cosby. Zenger’s lawyer, Andrew Hamilton—who’d been imported from Philadelphia to defend the printer—persuasively argued that truth was a defense against libel, making history.

Zenger came to America from Germany in 1710 and was apprenticed to New York City’s only newspaper publisher, William Bradford, who printed
The New York Gazette. After an eleven-year apprenticeship, Zenger struck out on his own, moving to Maryland. However, he had little luck there and ultimately moved back to New York where he eked out a living printing tracts and pamphlets.

In 1731, New York’s governor, John Montgomerie, died suddenly; a year later William Cosby arrived as his replacement and immediately stuck his nose into the thick of the city’s divisive political scene. Ticked off that Rip Van Dam, the interim governor, had been collecting a salary that Cosby deemed his own, Cosby sued. Two-thirds of the colony’s high court ruled in Cosby's favor; the Chief Justice, Lewis Morris,* voted against the governor and Cosby had him removed from the bench. Morris and his allies (who came to be known as the Popular Party or “Morrisites”) needed to find an outlet for their disdain for the governor. Since Bradford’s ­
Gazette was firmly controlled by the crown, they hired Zenger to produce the New York Weekly Journal as a mouthpiece for the Morrisites.

(As an example of the Gazette’s pro-Cosby editorializing, check out this couplet: “Cosby the mild, the happy, good and great/The strongest guard of our little state.”)

After a slew of increasingly bitter attacks on Cosby (most probably penned by Lewis Morris’s ally James Alexander), the governor decided to fight back. Because the articles were written anonymously—and because a publisher is ultimately responsible for the material he prints—it was Zenger who was arrested in November 1734 and charged with seditious libel. Throughout the winter of 1734-35, Zenger languished in jail while his wife, Anna, continued to print the
Journal. In order to strengthen his hand, Governor Cosby had Zenger’s lawyers disbarred and then tried to handpick the jurors for Zenger’s trial. (This latter tactic, at least, was rejected by the court.)

Finally, on August 4, Zenger was brought to trial. The prosecution presented their case to the jury and the new Chief Justice, James Delancey, and then Andrew Hamilton rose for the defense. After acknowledging that the case against Zenger was factually accurate—Zenger freely admitted to printing the attacks on Governor Cosby—Hamilton argued that precisely because it was fact it therefore couldn’t be libel. When Delancey and the prosecutors pointed out that truth didn’t come into play when considering seditious libel, Hamilton then turned to the jury to attempt to get them to nullify the law by voting not guilty. As Hamilton eloquently stated to the jury:
“Power may be justly compared to a great river which, while kept within its bounds is both beautiful and useful, but when it overflows its banks, is then too impetuous to be stemmed, it bears down on all before it and brings destruction and desolation wherever it goes.”
Despite Chief Justice Delancey’s instructions to the jury that, in essence, told them to ignore Hamilton, they agreed with Hamilton and found Zenger not guilty, thus establishing truth as a defense against libel, an argument that ultimately became part of the foundation of the First Amendment rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

Zenger died in 1746 (Anna continued to publish the
Journal after his death) and is reputedly buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard at Trinity, Wall Street. His former boss, William Bradford, has a prominent grave marker in the same cemetery—and it has a typo. Bradford was born in 1663; his grave stone says 1660.

* Morris’s great-grandsons were active in the Revolutionary era: Gouverneur penned the Preamble to the Constitution and Lewis signed the Declaration of Independence.


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Read more about Colonial New York inInside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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