P.T. Barnum's Happy Family

In addition to live whales, bears, and other large creatures, P.T. Barnum’s menagerie at his American Museum featured the Happy Family, “a miscellaneous collection of beasts and birds (upwards of sixty in number), living together harmoniously in one large cage, each of them being the mortal enemy of every other, but contentedly playing and frolicking together, without injury or discord.” — An Illustrated Catalogue And Guide Book To Barnum’s American Museum (1860)

When most of us hear the name P.T. Barnum, we automatically think of the circus and “The Greatest Show on Earth.” But many years before P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus made its debut in 1870 — and 40 years before he partnered with James A. Bailey – P.T. Barnum rose to fame with a very large collection of artificial and natural curiosities from around the world that he displayed at his American Museum on the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in New York City.

Part I: The American Museum at Broadway and Ann Street

The history of the American Museum and the land on which it occupied is fascinating, albeit complex. In this three-part story, I’ll introduce you to the history of the museum and the famous corner at Broadway and Ann Street, and tell you the story of the whales and mammals who were occupying the museum on the day it burned down in one of the most spectacular building fires in the history of New York City.

P.T. Barnum American Museum

The American Museum, depicted here around 1840 at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street across from St. Paul’s Church, was originally established by the Tammany Society as a small collection of global relics and preserved animals. (Trinity Church is also visible in this illustration.)

Our story begins in May 1791, when John Pintard, Jr., a Tammany organizer and founding father of the New York Historical Society, was authorized to use the back parlor in the old City Hall on Wall Street (Federal Hall) for “An American Museum under the patronage of the Tammany Society or Columbian Order.” (Formed just two years earlier, following the inauguration of George Washington, the Tammany Society was a social rather than political organization then.) Pintard was named secretary and Gardiner Baker was named keeper of the collection.

Federal Hall, New York City

The first American Museum was located in the back parlor of New York’s second City Hall, built in 1700 on Wall and Nassau Street. This building was renamed Federal Hall when New York City became the first capital of the United States under the Constitution in 1789. George Washington was inaugurated on the balcony of the building on April 30, 1789. Trinity Church ias also visible in this illustration.

Established for the purpose of “… collecting and preserving whatever may relate to the history of our country and as well display all curiosities of nature and art,” the Tammany Museum — better known as the American Museum — was originally limited to Tammany members and their families. Eventually, the museum was opened to the public on Tuesdays and Fridays. The entrance fee was two shillings (about 25 cents).

Shortly after it was established, the collection was moved to 57 King Street. Then in 1793, it was moved again to a large room (30 x 60 feet with a 20-foot-high arched ceiling) on the second floor of the Royal Exchange Building on Broad street.

Royal Exchange Building, 1790

The Royal Exchange building featured a ground floor that was open on all sides and one large room on the second floor, which was occupied by Tammany’s museum in 1793. The very first Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Jay, convened in this building on February 2, 1790. This building was later replaced by a more impressive Merchant’s Exchange, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1835.

In 1795, following Pintard’s departure, the Tammany Society relinquished control of the collection to Gardner Baker. Seeking to diversify from the Americana theme — and hoping to boost ticket sales to fund his museum — Baker added relics from Africa, China and India, as well as wax figures, preserved animals, and freakish curiosity items. He later added a menagerie to the collection, which featured a live mountain lion, raccoons, groundhogs, birds, and snakes (this was one of the city’s very first permanent animal exhibition).

Following Baker’s death from yellow fever in 1798, the collection was purchased by William I. Waldron, a grocer who unsuccessfully tried to sell it at auction. Four years later, the museum was sold to Edward Savage, a painter, inventor, and showman who owned an art gallery called the Columbian Gallery at 80 Greenwich Street.

Savage combined the holdings of his gallery and the museum and named it the Columbian Gallery of Painting and City Museum. The combined institution opened on May 11, 1802. Soon thereafter, Savage hired John Scudder, a 26-year-old taxidermist, to oversee the museum collection.

John Scudder American Museum

In 1816, John Scudder moved his American Museum to the westerly end of the old municipal almshouse on Chambers Street in City Hall Park, which had been converted into the city’s first non-profit cultural center called the New York Institute (shown here). Today, this site is occupied by the Tweed Courthouse at 52 Chambers Street.

Determined to make the museum collection his own, John Scudder took a job as a seaman and saved enough money over the years to purchase the collection in 1809. He moved the museum to 21 Chatham Street in March 1810 and expanded it to include shells, fossils, and wax sculptures of events in history and literature.

In 1816, when residents of the city’s second almshouse in City Hall Park were moved to Bellevue Hospital, Scudder was given the opportunity to display his collection on the second floor of the building — which had been renamed the New York Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences — where it continued to grow until the American Museum took up four large rooms.

Following John’s death on August 7, 1821, five museum trustees (including John Pintard) took over the collection until Scudder’s only son, Dr. John Scudder, was ready to take charge in 1826 (John wanted to be a doctor, and although he dropped out of medical school in 1825, most people still called him Dr. Scudder). The story gets long and confusing here — Dr. Scudder was reportedly an alcoholic who was deemed incompetent by his sisters — but he was a good showman, and under his management, the museum thrived for several years.

American Museum and St. Paul's Church

On December 24, 1830, Dr. John Scudder’s American Museum moved into the new five-story marble building (left) he leased from Francis W. Olmstead at 220 Broadway, just opposite St. Paul’s Church. Schuyler’s Palace of Fortune, where you could buy New York Lottery tickets, was located on the first floor of the building. Museum of the City of New York Collections

In December 1830, Dr. Scudder took a big gamble by moving the museum from the New York Institute in City Hall Park to a brand new marble behemoth on Broadway and Ann Street. A year later, though, things began going downhill when Dr. Scudder reportedly got into a drunken brawl and was subsequently fired by the museum trustees.

The cholera outbreak of 1832, the Great Fire of 1835, and the financial panic of 1837 nearly drove the museum into complete financial ruin. Dr. Scudder’s sisters brought their despised brother back to manage the museum again, but by 1841 they were all fed up and desperate and ready to sell.

On May 11, 1841, the entire collection was sold to P.T. Barnum, who made arrangements with Francis Olmstead to lease the building for $3000 a year. Barnum opened his new American Museum on December 27, 1841.

220 Broadway, P.T. Barnum American Museum

In 1830, the year the “Marble Building” at 220 Broadway was constructed, stonecutters were rebelling against the growing use of marble and granite cut in New York State prisons. They charged that competition from convict labor was unfair, degraded their professions, and threatened their jobs. On June 22, 1830, they stormed the construction site at Broadway and Ann Street and threatened to tar and feather the workers if the contractor did not stop using the marble. City officials arrived and arrested the leaders of the disturbance.

In 1842, P. T. Barnum purchased the entire contents of Rubens Peale’s Museum at 252 Broadway, and in 1850, he expanded again by purchasing the large Peale collection in Philadelphia (Charles Wilson Peale, Rubens’ father, was founder of the Philadelphia Museum). By 1865, Barnum had more than doubled the size of the American Museum.

Peale's Museum

Rubens Peale’s Museum at 252 Broadway opened on the same day as the Erie Canal, October 26, 1825. The four-story museum featured paintings, natural wonders, enormous panoramas (called cosmoramas), wax figures, and a few oddities. Peale specialized in live entertainment and lectures, with subjects ranging from animal magnetism to seances. Museum of the City of New York Collections

As The New York Times reported on July 14, 1865:

Probably no building in New-York was better known, inside and out, to our citizens than the ill-looking ungainly, rambling structure on the corner of Broadway and Ann-streets, known as the American Museum, where for more than twenty years Mr. BARNUM has furnished the public with a wonderful variety of amusements.

Here he has exhibited all the remarkable curiosities which money and enterprise could procure, or ingenuity invent. A model of Niagara Falls operated by a steam-engine; the Feejee mermaid, made up of the head and body of a monkey and the tail of a fish; the diorama of the removal of the remains of NAPOLEON I. From St. Helena to Paris; the happy Family, the “What Is it?” the Lightning Calculator, the hippopotamus, whales, alligators, baby shows, dog shows, prize poultry, and ten thousand other objects of curiosity, formed at various times the objects of popular attraction, and achieved for Mr. BARNUM a success which probably exceeded even his most sanguine expectations.”

First Grand Hall of the American Museum

P.T. Barnum American Museum

Coming soon, Part II: The History of the Famous Corner at Broadway and Ann Street

Mutilator, The Sun Office Cat

This photo of Mutilator, a descendant of The Sun’s very first office cat, was published in 1900 in Helen M. Winslow’s book, Concerning Cats, My Own and Some Others. New York Sun editor Charles Dana reportedly provided the photo, along with a lengthy description of the newspaper’s many office cats.

“A single member of this [cat] family has been known, on a ‘rush’ night, to devour three and a half columns of presidential possibilities, seven columns of general politics, pretty much all but the head of a large and able-bodied railroad accident, and a full page of miscellaneous news, and then claw the nether garments of the managing editor, and call attention to an appetite still in good working order.” — Charles Dana, editor of The Sun, 1868-1897

We’re all familiar with the expression, “The dog ate my homework,” and some of us may have even resorted to this excuse when we forgot or chose not to do a homework assignment.

Reportedly, the expression dates to a story in a 1905 issue of The Cambrian, a magazine for Welsh Americans, in which William ApMadoc, the journal’s music critic, relates an anecdote about a minister who once asked his clerk whether his sermon that day had been long enough. Upon being assured that it was, the minister told the clerk that his dog had eaten some of the paper it was written on just before the service.

Well, as in many affairs involving cats and dogs, the cats trump the dogs on this one — by about 20 years.

The Office Cat and the Civil Service Reform Act

On July 2, 1881, President James A. Garfield was assassinated by Charles Guiteau. Mr. Guiteau reportedly killed the president because he was angry that he did not get a government position that he felt was due him. Following the assassination, President Chester Arthur pushed through legislation to put an end to civil appointments based on patronage.

George William Curtis

In 1871, George William Curtis, the political editor of Harper’s Weekly, was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant to chair a commission on the reform of the civil service. Curtis rose to become the leader in this reform, serving as president of the National Civil Service Reform League and the New York Civil Service Reform Association.

On January 16, 1883, Congress passed the Civil Service Reform Act, sometimes referred to as the Pendleton Act after U.S. Senator George Hunt Pendleton of Ohio, a primary sponsor of the legislation. The Civil Service Reform Act was written by Dorman Bridgeman Eaton, a staunch opponent of the spoils system, which awarded government jobs to party supporters, friends, and relatives.

So what does this have to do with a cat? Well, as the story goes, the cat came into play on December 30, 1884, when New York State governor and president-elect Grover Cleveland wrote a letter to George William Curtis, president of the state’s Civil Service Reform Association.

The letter, which stressed Cleveland’s intent to support the Pendleton Act during his administration, was submitted to several New York newspapers, including The Evening Post, The New York Times, and The Sun.

That Tuesday morning, the letter appeared in all the newspapers except The Sun. The “office cat” took the blame.

YMCA Association Hall, New York

The New York Civil Service Reform Association, founded in 1877, held its quarterly meetings at the Young Men’s Christian Association Hall at 52 East 23rd Street.

According to legend, shortly after the letter arrived at the desk of The Sun’s telegraph editor, it blew out an open window and was lost on Nassau Street.

When New York Supreme Court Justice Willard Bartlett inquired about the lack of publication the next day, The Sun’s editor, Charles Anderson Dana, remarked that it would be difficult to explain what happened to the readers, especially since it was well known that he was not all that fond of Grover Cleveland. Justice Bartlett responded, “Oh, say that the office cat ate it up.”

Charles Dana apparently thought this was a good idea, so he dictated a paragraph creating the cat as follows:

We are frequently obliged to deplore the circumstance that the Sun is not invariably conducted in a manner to please those of our esteemed contemporaries that do not happen to agree with us in opinion; but, sad as it is, we cannot always help it.

Willard Bartlett

New York Supreme Court Justice Willard Bartlett gets all the credit for inventing The Sun’s much celebrated office cat.

Here are The Evening Post and The New York Times, both seasonably exercised because the Sun happened to publish Mr. Cleveland’s letter on the civil service question on Wednesday, and not on Tuesday. The more profound of the two journals accounts for the fact on the hypothesis that we are afraid, and were “let into the astonishing journalistic blunder of trying to suppress it.”

This is a new conception worthy of its origin. The Sun is not usually suspected of being afraid of Mr. Cleveland’s publications; and we solemnly declare that, so far as we can remember, we never tried to suppress a public document that came from a President.

Since The Evening Post and The Times take interest in the conduct of the Sun, we beg to assure them that it was only through an accident that Mr. Cleveland’s letter was not published by us on Tuesday. The assistant editor, who had charge of it, lost the copy from his desk, either by some person taking it or by the wind blowing it away, or the office cat eating it up; and that is all there is of it.

In the name of the Prophet, Fudge!

Tammany Hall, 170 Nassau Street

In 1867, when Charles Dana and his associates purchased The Sun, they moved the offices into the old Tammany Hall building at Nassau and Frankfort Street (#170 Nassau). It is here Mutilator and many other office cats made their home. This building was constructed for the Tammany Society in 1812, and featured a large room that could hold up to 2,000 people for political and social events. The rest of the building was run as a hotel. The Sun stayed at this building until July 1915, when the newspaper moved to 150 Nassau Street. Museum of the City of New York Collections

The news about the cat went viral, so to speak, and within days almost every newspaper in the country had picked up on the story of the nameless office cat. In response, Charles Dana penned the following editorial about his office cat:

The universal interest which this accomplished animal has excited throughout the country is a striking refutation that genius is not honored in its own day and generation. Perhaps no other living critic has attained the popularity and vogue now enjoyed by our cat. For years he worked in silence, unknown, perhaps, beyond the limits of the office. He is a sort of Rosicrucian cat, and his motto has been “to know all and to keep himself unknown.” But he could not escape the glory his efforts deserved, and a few mornings ago he woke up, like Byron, to find himself famous.

We are glad to announce that he hasn’t been puffed up by the enthusiastic praise which comes to him from all sources. He is the same industrious, conscientious, sharp-eyed, and sharp-toothed censor of copy that he has always been, nor should we have known that he is conscious of the admiration he excites among his esteemed contemporaries of the press had we not observed him in the act of dilacerating a copy of the Graphic containing an alleged portrait of him…

We have received many requests to give a detailed account of the personal habits and peculiarities of this feline Aristarchus. His favorite food is a tariff discussion. When a big speech, full of wind and statistics, comes within his reach, he pounces upon it immediately and digests the figures at his leisure…

The Sun office cat

Many newspapers across the nation wrote about The Sun’s office cat and published illustrations of what they supposed he looked like. Here, the Topeka Daily Capital depicts the office cat with a likeness of Charles Dana’s face.

When a piece of stale news or a long-winded, prosy article comes into the office, his remarkable sense of smell instantly detects it, and it is impossible to keep it from him. He always assists with great interest at the opening of the office mail, and he files several hundred letters a day in his interior department. The favorite diversion of the office-boys is to make him jump for twelve-column articles on the restoration of the American merchant marine…

We don’t pretend he is perfect. We admit that he has an uncontrollable appetite for the Congressional Record. We have to keep this peculiar publication out of his reach. He will sit for hours and watch with burning eyes the iron safe in which we are obliged to shut up the Record for safe-keeping. Once in a while we let him have a number or two. He becomes uneasy without it. It is his catnip.

Many of our esteemed contemporaries are furnishing their offices with cats, but they can never hope to have the equal of The Sun’s venerable polyphage. He is a cat of genius.

Over the years, The Sun’s office cat took the blame for many news blunders. The New York Times especially liked to criticize its rival’s editorials – particularly those about politics – by suggesting the office cat must have chewed up the good parts or devoured all the copy written about any topic or candidate The Sun did not support.

Some folks took the cat way too literally, like John J. Ford, who, while in a state of inebriation one afternoon, stormed into The Sun’s editorial room demanding to see the cat. Mr. Ford charged the cat with failing to devour an article that appeared in the Sunday paper. When he became too aggressive with the editorial staff, he was taken down by a few newspaper men and arrested by a policeman from the 26th Precinct station.

Stewart's Retail Store

In 1917, The Sun moved into the old A.T. Stewart Dry Goods Store, aka the Marble Palace, at 280 Broadway. This building was constructed in 1845 on the site of Washington Hall, the former headquarters of the Federalist Party, at the northeast corner of Broadway and Chambers Street, just north of City Hall Park. The building was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965 and today houses the central offices for the New York City Department of Buildings. Museum of the City of New York Collections

“If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.”

In 1897, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, a coroner’s assistant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was asked by his then eight-year-old daughter, Virginia O’Hanlon, whether Santa Claus really existed. O’Hanlon suggested she write to The Sun, assuring her that “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” One of the paper’s editors, Francis Pharcellus Church, wrote the famous editorial we still celebrate today at the holiday season.

The editorial, Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, was published on September 21, 1897. Three weeks later, on October 17, Charles Dana passed away.

Charles Anderson Dana

Charles Anderson Dana started his newspaper career in 1847 as city editor of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. In 1868, he became editor and part owner of The New Sun, where he remained until his death in 1897.

Sometime shortly before his death, Charles Dana was approached by Helen M. Winslow, who was writing a book about famous cats called Concerning Cats, My Own and Some Others. (If you love cats and history, it’s a great read.)

At Ms. Winslow’s request, The Sun’s editor furnished a lengthy description of the office cats. According to Dana, the first Sun office cat was a female cat who reportedly died after drinking the contents of an ink bottle. Fortunately, she had many kittens (who were “weaned on reports from country correspondents”), and one of them advanced to the duties and honors of office cat.

Mutilator, the latest office cat at the time, was a descendant of this kitten. According to Dana, Mutilator was “a creditable specimen of his family” with “an appetite for copy unsurpassed in the annals of his race.”

I can’t say for sure that The Sun had an actual office cat or whether Mutilator really existed. Helen Winslow also appears to have doubts about the story. In fact, in her introduction to Charles Dana’s text, Ms. Winslow notes, “I can only vouch for its veracity by quoting the famous phrase, “If you see it in The Sun, it is so.”

General Muff, cat of Mary L. Booth

General Muff had a wardrobe of collars of all kinds and colors, from dainty ribbon to Russian leather. Here he poses for a portrait wearing his “Fayal collar,” which was supposedly crafted in the Azores in Portugal.

May it be long before Muff’s gracious personality requires an epitaph, but when that time comes, the following lines will apply to him as fitly as to the one for whom they were written, the poet Whittier’s cat, Bathsheba:
“Whereat none said ‘Scat!’
Better cat never sat
On a mat, or caught a rat,
Than this cat. Requiescat!”
–Famous Pets of Famous People, Eleanor Lewis, 1892

For much of the first half of the 19th century, the Upper East Side of Manhattan remained very rural, to say the least. Most of the territory – about one-seventh of the acreage of Manhattan — had been owned by the city since the 1686 Dongan Charter of the City of New York, which granted to the city “all the waste, vacant, unpatented, and unappropriated lands.” The city maintained possession of these common lands for over a century, but would occasionally sell off small parcels and make them available under 21-year leases to raise funds for municipal projects.

Park Avenue tunnel

For more than 40 years, much of the double-track line along Fourth Avenue was at grade level. This created a hazard for humans as well as livestock (a locomotive once reportedly hit a cow at East 58th Street.). In 1872, construction began on the two-mile Beam Tunnel, shown here. The tunnel was completely renovated in the 1980s.

During the late 1700s and early 1800s, many of the parcels in the Upper East Side were purchased by wealthy New Yorkers as speculative investments in anticipation of a real estate boom. One of these men was Isaac Adriance, an early member of the St. Nicholas Society of the City of New York who bought a considerable amount of land along Fourth Avenue (present-day Park Avenue) from about 50th Street to Harlem.

Development began in earnest with the chartering of the New York & Harlem Railroad (NY&H), which opened a double-track horse-car line along Fourth Avenue from 23rd Street to the hamlet of Harlem in 1837. The opening of Lexington Avenue and the construction of Central Park in the 1850s also drove up the value of real estate on the Upper East Side.

In 1872, the city and the railroad initiated the Fourth Avenue Improvement Scheme to help alleviate some of the locomotive dirt and noise that was now rendering the avenue an undesirable place to live. The railroad — now the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad — was widened to four tracks and placed within a tunnel from 59th to 96th Street. Above 96th Street, open-cut stations were constructed, like the Harlem station at 124th-125th Street.

Park Avenue 59th Street 1876

The Fourth Avenue Improvement Scheme of 1872 helped to alleviate some of the dirt and noise by placing the railroad tracks within a tunnel that was partially enclosed to allow for the locomotive smoke and cinders to escape. In this circa 1876 illustration of Fourth Avenue and 59th Street, you can see 101 East 59th Street, where our feline protagonist made his home, on the right (surrounded by iron fencing). Notice how all of the buildings face the side streets. New York Public Library Digital Collection

The plan worked pretty well, however, and soon numerous tenements and row houses were built along Fourth Avenue from 42nd Street northward. Since a Fourth Avenue address was still not desirable for well-to-do folks, most of the residences on corner lots were constructed to face the side streets rather than the main avenue. (That all changed after 1886, when Fourth Avenue north of 42nd Street was renamed Park Avenue.)

It was in one of these corner residences that General Muff made his home.

Mary Louis Booth

Mary Louise Booth

General Muff and Miss Mary Louise Booth

General Muff has been described as “a real nobleman among cats.” It is said that the soft gray Maltese with white paws and breast was extraordinarily handsome, amiable, and uncommonly intelligent. He was also a “cat cousin” of the late John Wilkes Booth. Yes, that one.

Muff was the beloved pet of Mary Louise Booth, a prominent member of New York’s literary circle who was best known for being the founding editor of Harper’s Bazar (as it was spelled until 1929). Muff lived with Mary and her best childhood friend, Mrs. Anne (Allie) W. Wright, in a three-story brownstone at 101 East 59th Street, on the northeast corner of Park Avenue.

Harper's Bazar 1867

In 1867, Fletcher Harper, the editor of Harper’s Weekly, invited Mary to take charge of his new publication, Harper’s Bazar. Under her leadership for almost 17 years, the magazine was a great success, growing to a circulation of 80,000 in its first decade. Here is the cover from the first issue, November 2, 1867.

In the 1880s, Saturday nights at Mary Booth’s home were legendary among New York authors, musicians, artists, statesmen, and other likewise professionals. Described as “the nearest approach to the French salon possible in America,” Mary Booth’s weekly literary gatherings were always well attended despite the remote location on East 59th Street.

The salons took place in her parlors, which were described in The Current in 1883 as “cheerful and light in color” and decorated with items from all over the world. There were vases from Japan, old silver from Norway, unique trinkets from Mexico and the West Indies, and even a collection of real strands of hair from the heads of Shelley, Keats, and Byron. The pictures on her walls were all gifts from famous friends, including authors Mary Mapes Dodge and Sara Jane Lippincott, editor Whitelaw Reid, and poet Richard Watson Gilder.

Mary Louise Booth

“Tall and with much majesty of demeanor, she moved among them like a queen; her gray hair, rolled back over a cushion, becoming her as a crown would have done, her dark-brown eyes, the rose tint on her dimpled cheek, and her beaming smile, all made her beautiful; and the ready bon mot, the witty and good-natured turn upon her tongue, made her charming.” — Harriet Spofford, A Little Book of Friends

Muff always figured prominently at the Saturday evening salons, donning his elaborate and expensive lace collar made in the Yucatan (a gift from writer and expeditionary photographer Madame Alice Dixon le Plongeon), and taking full responsibility for entertaining all the guests. No Saturday evening at Miss Booth’s would be complete without his offering of a mouse during the reception in the drawing room.

Muff rarely spent much time outdoors – he was terrified of the feral cats in the backyard – but if a window was left open, he wouldn’t hesitate to take a quick romp among the backyards of 59th Street and put his superb mousing skills to work.

Inside the brownstone, he shared his little world with two canaries – Fluff and Allegretto – several red birds and mocking birds, and a little gray cat named Vashti. The cats and birds spent many hours together in Mary’s library on the second floor, which faced the backyard.

[Park Avenue from 55th to 59th Street.]

In this circa 1871 photo, you can still see some wooden shanties and rocky outcrops at the intersection of 55th Street and Fourth Avenue. Mary Booth’s brownstone is visible at the top left of the photo. You can also see the Church of the Advent, erected in 1870 at 123 East 57th Street (white roof, in the right center). Museum of the City of New York Collections

Author Harriet Elizabeth Prescott Spofford, a dear friend of Mary’s, once wrote of Muff’s relationship with Vashti:

“His latter days were rendered miserable by a little silky, gray creature, an Angora named Vashti, who was a spark of the fire of the lower regions wrapped round in long silky fur, and who never let him alone one moment: who was full of tail-lashings and racings and leapings and fury, and of the most demonstrative love for her mistress. Once I made them collars with breastplates of tiny dangling bells, nine or ten; it excited them nearly to madness, and they flew up and down stairs like unchained lightning till the trinkets were taken off.”

From Millville to Brooklyn

Booth Kinney House

Mary Booth was born in this small wood-shingled Cape house in Millville, New York, in 1831. This home is still standing, and has undergone a complete restoration courtesy of the Yaphank Historical Society and Suffolk County.

Mary Louise Brown was born on April 19, 1831, in Millville (present-day Yaphank), a small hamlet in the town of Brookhaven, New York. Her father, William Chatfield Booth, had a small woolen mill and dye house, and also taught school in the winter months. He was a descendant of Ensign John Booth, who, in 1652, reportedly purchased Shelter Island off the coast of Long Island from the Manhansett tribe for 100 yards of calico. Her mother, Nancy Monswell, was also a teacher.

Sometime around 1845, when Mary was 14, the Booth family moved to Brooklyn. There, her father opened the very first school in Williamsburg (possibly Primary School 1, which was on North 7th Street between present-day Berry Street and Bedford Avenue). Mary taught at the school for two years, but due to health issues, she stopped teaching at age 16 and devoted herself to literature.

1859 History of the City of New York, Mary Louise Booth

Although renowned for her translation work in earlier years — primarily of contemporary French works about the American Civil War — Mary Booth’s greatest achievement was her 1859 History of the City of New York, the first comprehensive study of the city in the 19th century.

In 1849, Mary moved to a small boarding house in Manhattan. Before taking the helm of Harper’s Bazar in 1867, she worked as a vest maker, contributed to various journals, worked as a space-rate reporter for The New York Times, and was quite active in promoting women’s rights, working alongside Susan B. Anthony and other leaders in the suffrage movement.

Mary died in her home on March 5, 1899, and was buried in the family plot in Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn. Muff died very soon thereafter. Vashti, who was also very much admired by Mary’s literary friends, was given to Miss Juliet Corson, a leader in cookery education and superintendent of the New York School of Cookery, which she founded in 1876.

“No sweeter or lovlier woman ever moved in New York literary circles.” — The Philadelphia Times, March 24, 1889.

The Booth Brownstone at 101 East 59th Street

This concludes the story of Muff, but if you enjoy history, you may want to read about the fascinating history behind the intersection of 59th Street and Park Avenue, of which Muff and Mary Booth played only a very small part.

In May 1858, real estate broker A.J. Bleecker sold a block of parcels owned by Isaac Adriance and bounded by Third and Fourth Avenue. J.C. Henderson purchased quite a few of these lots, including the lots at the intersection of 59th and Fourth Avenue. The lots remained undeveloped for about 12 years, allowing numerous squatters to take advantage of the land and establish wooden shanties there.

On May 3, 1869, at about midnight, a Croton water main on Fourth Avenue and 59th Street suddenly burst, creating a large explosion. The rushing water tore up the railroad tracks and washed away about 20 feet of 59th Street, which at the time was about 15 feet above ground level. All of the wooden shanties in the sunken lots were demolished, but miraculously, no lives were lost.

Croton water main

The large 48-inch Croton water main under Fourth Avenue – like these pictured nearby in Central Park in 1890 — burst open at 59th Street around midnight on May 3, 1869, creating a huge explosion and putting many people’s lives at risk. Museum of the City of New York Collections

According to news reports, a shanty on the southeastern corner of Fourth and 59th was occupied by a woman and her child who had to be lifted to the roof and rescued. Jerry Curtin, a blind man, lost everything in the disaster. As the water rushed up to his chin, it was all he could do to get out of the shanty with his wife.

By the time the Croton Aqueduct Department shut the water off, it had risen to 25 feet, covering the roofs of the shanties and turning the lots into lakes. About 25 families were left homeless, all their worldly possessions scattered along the flooded streets.

Two years later, when the 1871 photo (above) of Fourth Avenue was taken, only a few shanties remained south of 59th Street. Numerous brand-new brownstones now stood where the water main explosion had taken place.

Overin's Stables, New York City

Sometime around 1891, Mary Booth’s brownstone was demolished and replaced by a five-story, 75 x 100 foot brick building occupied by Henry Clay Overin’s Market Boarding and Livery Stables. The new address for this building was 501-505 Park Avenue. (This photo is of Overin’s other stables in a similar building at 600-610 Seventh Avenue.)

In March 1874, John Fettretch placed a classified ad for the 3-story brownstone at 101 East 59th Street. Rent was $1,700 a year or $2,000 with gas fixtures, window shades and carpets. In July 1874, Patrick Donahoe was listed as a resident, and in 1882, Mr. Stephen D. Caldwell was living at the home. Mary Booth purchased the building sometime around 1883.

In 1891, a year after Mary’s companion, Anne Wright, died, the Booth brownstone was demolished and replaced with a five-story brick stable owned by Henry Clay Overin. The stables were one of the most popular in the city until Overin’s death in 1897.

With the advent of the motorized vehicle, the stables were converted and renamed the Mineola Garage. Several deaths are associated with this garage, including that of two-year-old Catherine Clancy, who fell four floors to the basement in a large automobile elevator shaft in 1915, and Mrs. Rose Tighe of 512 West 158th Street, who was killed in 1939 when employee Raymond Kahn lost control and drove a vehicle through a fifth-floor wall, sending an avalanche of bricks to the street below.

Mineola Garage on Park Avenue and 59th

In this circa 1917 photo of the Mineola Garage on Park Avenue and 59th Street, you can see a few surviving brownstones at Nos. 105-109 East 59th Street. Mary’s brownstone would have been identical to these before their lower floors were renovated for retail space. Museum of the City of New York Collections

In 1923, Hester A. Booth of Yonkers sold the Mineola Garage and land lease to Frederick Brown. He also purchased 105 East 59th Street from Georgina McGinley and the two other brownstones shown in the photo above.

505 Park Avenue

In 1948, a 21-story structure was built at 505 Park Avenue for the Arabian American Oil Company. The building also housed the Hudson Pulp and Paper Corporation, National Association of Cost Accountants, and Lever Bros. A Howard Johnsons restaurant was on the ground level.

In 1924, Frederick Brown sold his property to Arthur Brisbane and M.L. Annenberg. The land was sold one last time in 1946 to Percy and Harold Uris, who put up a modern 21-story office building. According to Property Shark, in 2015 this building had a value of $78,095,000.

Should you have the chance to walk by 505 Park Avenue — or maybe attend a wine tasting there at Sherry-Lehmann — close your eyes and picture a handsome gray cat wearing a lace collar sitting in the window.