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Thursday, July 12, 2018

Postcard Thursday: Depicting the Hamilton-Burr Duel

On July 12, 1804, Alexander Hamilton died at his friend William Bayard's home on Jane Street, having been shot the day before by Aaron Burr in Weehawken, New Jersey.

Over the years, numerous illustrations have shown the dramatic moment of the duel when Burr shot Hamilton:

What all of these illustrations have in common is that all of them are wrong. While there were other people present at the duel, there were no witnesses. As we write in Footprints in New York, Hamilton and Burr
arrived in Weehawken about a half an hour apart. Burr and his party got there first and began clearing the dueling grounds. Hamilton, Nathaniel Pendleton, and David Hosack, a physician, arrived around seven in the morning. By prearrangement, the seconds were to keep their backs turned away from Hamilton and Burr. Since dueling was illegal, this would give them the chance, if questioned, to say they hadn’t seen anything. 
Hamilton, as the challenged, had brought the pistols, and he was given the choice of his weapon. Hamilton took his time getting into position. He cleaned his glasses. He repeatedly tested his aim. Was this a show of nerves—or was he trying to provoke Burr? The pistols belonged to Hamilton’s brother-in-law, and he may have had the opportunity to practice with them. Did that give him an unfair advantage? Even if it did, it turned out not to matter.
Hamilton fired first. His bullet flew above Burr’s head, lodging in a cedar tree. 
Then Burr fired. His aim was true, and his shot lodged in Hamilton’s spine, having first lacerated his liver.
Notice that in every picture of the duel, the seconds are looking on helplessly. If the custom of the day was followed, their backs would have been turned.

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Want to hear more about NYC history?

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Thursday, July 5, 2018

Postcard Thursday: The End of Slavery in New York

It is easy in modern New York to forget that New York's economic strength from the seventeenth-nineteenth century was tied to the slavery. In the mid-1800s, forty percent of white families in the city owned at least one enslaved person, and the city's Meal Market on Wall Street did a brisk trade in the selling of humans as chattel.

As we write in Inside the Apple*:
Slavery had been a contentious issue through America’s brief history as a nation, in no place more than New York. By the turn of the 19th century, it had become the largest slave-holding city in the north—and the nation’s second-largest slave-holding city, after Charleston, South Carolina. New York’s Manumission Society, whose founders included John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, was instrumental in banning the sale of enslaved Africans in the state and instituting a gradual manumission beginning in 1799. However, by 1817, slavery was still abundant and Governor Daniel Tompkins prompted the state legislature to set a date for total emancipation. The date selected—a decade away—was July 4, 1827, when all slaves in the state were freed.
Because African-American leaders felt that the celebrations of emancipation would get lost amidst the general hubbub of Independence Day, they decided to mark manumission with a parade on July 5, 1827. A group of nearly 4,000 marchers ("accompanied by several bands of music") headed down Broadway and ended at the AME Zion Church, which then stood at the corner of Church and Leonard streets. Other celebrations included a night at the Mount Pitt Circus on Grand Street, where a "Grand Celebration of the Abolition of Slavery" was held, including a performance of the melodrama The Secret Mine, which evidently combines elements of horsemanship, Hinduism, and a Chinese slave. Whether this was the most appropriate conclusion for the day's events is unclear.

Some New Yorkers were not emancipated at July 5; unscrupulous owners failed to inform some of those who'd been enslaved of their freedom.
The most famous New York State slave not to gain his freedom was Caesar, who died in 1852 as a “house servant” at Bethlehem House, the estate of the Nicoll family, descendants of New York’s first English Governor, Richard Nicolls (somewhere along the line, the final “s” was dropped from their surname). Caesar had been born in the house in 1737 and served his entire 115-year-life in service to three generations of the Nicoll family, totally unaware that after 1827 he was a free man. Caesar’s fate is only known because a later Nicoll descendant wrote up the story of his life. How many other Africans continued in enslavement or indentured servitude because their owners hid the truth from them?

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* Did you know that Inside the Apple has recently been released for the first time as an audio book?

Visit Amazon or Audible to download today!

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