George Thompson in NYT - online
laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Jan 28 00:39:03 UTC 2002
You can also find in on Nexis. Here's the version appearing there; I
haven't adjusted the line lengths, which make these read like free
verse. No graphics, unfortunately.
The New York Times
January 27, 2002, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 11; Page 7; Column 1; Real Estate Desk
HEADLINE: Streetscapes/Early-19th-Century New York;
The Streets Are Familiar, but the Way of Life Is Gone
BYLINE: By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
LIKE a few other New Yorkers, George A. Thompson methodically reads
multiple daily New York newspapers -- but they don't arrive on
his doorstep. Over the last decade, Mr. Thompson has been gradually
reading dozens of different New York newspapers from the early days
of the republic to World War I; last summer he happened upon the
earliest recorded use of the term baseball, in 1823.
Wading through a twilight zone of sources -- unindexed,
uncatalogued, often long forgotten -- he is gradually reconstructing
a New York City
that seems like a foreign country -- a place where citizens could
see the aurora borealis, where Midtown farmers complained of tree
and where ribboned steers paraded down Pine Street, Born in
Connecticut in 1941 to a Brooklyn-born father, Mr. Thompson got a
degree in English literature and then a temporary library job in
Boston that led to a career in library service. A reference librarian
York University since 1972, "I have been fascinated for all of my
life with time past -- worlds that have disappeared," he said.
He said that what strikes him about early photographs is not the
vanished buildings, but the evidences of human life visible in the
blurry pedestrians or passers-by somehow caught by the lens. "These
people were intent on something," he said. "Our past lives are a
succession of moments that absorb us at the time but have faded or
been entirely forgotten. The newspapers record what was once the
moment, and reading them lets me slip back into that time."
About 10 years ago Mr. Thompson began scanning early 19th century
newspapers for no particular purpose. He ran across notices in a
newspaper called The National Advocate about a black man named
William A. Brown, who organized a company of black actors in 1821.
Their first play was Shakespeare's "Richard III," but Brown also had
them perform a play he composed based on his life on the island of St.
Vincent. Although players in Brown's "African Theatre" were
occasionally harassed by some white New Yorkers, in 1822 Brown built a
playhouse on Mercer between Bleecker and Houston Streets. By 1824 it
was used by the actor James Hewlett, who billed himself as "the
New-York and London colored comedian" and as "Shakespeare's proud
representative." Hewlett went to jail in 1834 for theft, and the last
reference Mr. Thompson can find has Hewlett attempting a comeback in
Trinidad, in a white-managed theater there.
Mr. Thompson wrote "A Documentary History of the African Theatre"
(Northwestern University Press, 1998) on Brown and Hewlett's
efforts. "They mark the fountainhead of one of the main streams of
black creativity in this country," he said.
His intensive research about the 1820's led him to a discovery that
made news worldwide. While double-checking The National Advocate, he
saw a story from 1823 that he had missed before: the announcement of
a "base ball" game on Broadway south of Eighth Street, pushing the
origins of the game far earlier than the traditional story of Abner
Doubleday in 1839. Last summer, the discovery was reported on the
page of The New York Times.
Now, a decade into his project, Mr. Thompson has read large runs of
New York City newspapers in almost every year of the 19th century,
especially the period 1815-1835, and the material he has collected
presents a New York that is hard to relate to.
In 1826 The New-York National Advocate commented on what was
apparently a familiar springtime ritual: "A pair of fine steers,
with the usual quantity of cocliquot ribbands, and oranges on the
tips of their horns, were paraded yesterday through Pearl, Pine and
streets, with music. They are to be dead and cut up, ornamenting the
stall No. 7 Franklin-market, on the 4th of March." Mr. Thompson
believes this annual event marked the breaking up of ice on the
Hudson, after which upstate farmers could ship their cattle to New
In a city free of smog and tall buildings, The New-York Evening Post
gave an account of an aurora borealis seen from 9 to 11 p.m. in 1830,
described as "a vivid flush of light in the sky, extending from east
to west, in a long low arch." The article continued: "The light was
greenish tint, and contrasted beautifully with the dark blue of the
heavens, while at intervals the stars were seen faintly twinkling
South of the principal arch, luminous spots, like portions of the
galaxy, occasionally showed themselves and disappeared."
The condition of the streets was a constant annoyance. In 1818 The
New-York Evening Post reported in outrage: "A respectable elderly
while crossing the intersection of Chambers and Chatham Streets
yesterday afternoon, was thrown completely prostrate by a large hog
seriously injured by the fall. The rude boys, who set the drove in
full speed among the crowds returning from church, immediately ran
And in 1825 The Commercial Advertiser lamented on the city's failure
to clean the streets, invoking the names of two strikingly unequal
mountains: "There is now a pile of manure in William-street, along
side of which that of Maiden-lane would dwindle like Butter Hill by
of Chimborazo. On the highest peak of this heap, some wicked wag
this morning erected a monument, inscribed, 'Sacred to the memory of
the Street Inspector.' "
The Commercial Advertiser expressed annoyance with the 1825
equivalent of scooters: "The driving of hoops upon the side-walks, has
become an annoyance. It is now very common to meet three or four
boys, of from 10 to 16 years, even in Broadway and Pearl-street,
coming full tilt, one after the other, with a hoop rattling along
before them. Kites are a dangerous annoyance, too."
And in 1829 The Morning Courier chimed in with a satirical plea from
the usually unlit "Lamp-Post #10", which lamented in "the voice of
one crying in the darkness, 'I will be heard since I cannot be seen.' "
IN 1835 The New York Daily Advertiser reported that 14 "valuable oak
and hickory trees" on a farm somewhere between 14th and 57th
Street had been cut down during the night and stolen. After a chase
of about a half mile, a policeman found and arrested one of the
"near the windmill," and the paper attributed the crime to a group
of "dirt cartmen and laborers, living in the outskirts of the city."
On a recent day at the New York Society Library on East 79th Street,
Mr. Thompson was scanning The New-York Evening Post, looking up
citations he had previously noted and copying them in longhand onto
tightly filled notebook pages. He uses microfilm when necessary, but
also checks hard-copy issues of newspapers. "Looking at microfilm is
a pain, and often the filmed version misses issues or pages or is
illegible," he said. The library has a nearly full run of original
copies of The Post from 1804 to 1929.
Mr. Thompson is now working on a book-length compilation of early
19th-century newspaper articles, with crime news, a sports page, a
travel page, a real estate page, restaurant reviews and similar features.
He said he hoped that "readers will finish one story, shake their
heads and say, 'I can't believe that New York was ever like that,'
then read the
next story and shake their heads and say, 'I can't believe that New
York has always been like that.' "
Mr. Thompson does read current newspapers, but not with the same
care he devotes to the old ones: "I sort of leaf through The Times and
The News" he said, explaining, "The tragedies I read about in the
1820's are easier to deal with than today's."
GRAPHIC: Photo: George A. Thompson and a very old newspaper in the
reference room at the New York Society Library. (Nicole
Bengiveno/The New York Times)
More information about the Ads-l