1873: Sailor’s Snug Harbor, Staten Island, NY“THIS is rather a cold morning, isn’t it?” “Cold, Sir ~ She’s a biter. Bless me if my toes ain’t amost a-comm’ off with cold!” This was rather a curious remark, seeing that it came from a person whose lower extremities consisted of two wooden sticks from the knees down. I suppose that my countenance betrayed my astonishment at it, for the old sailor smiled, and, looking down at his sticks, continued, “You see, Sir, somehow or other the cold weather always loosens my straps, and I feel as if the pins were gem to shake me My old ‘uns, of the real stuff, were left at San Juan d’Ulloa, in the Mexican war, and since then I have been hoppin’ around on pedestals. But there’s the Harhor now, Sir, and that’s where I have been anchored these twenty years. Nice place, commodore. Was you ever there?” I told the old man that it was just the object of my visit at the present time and that I had come down on the boat for no other purpose. I also told him that I had a letter to Governor Melvill, and that I should be obliged to him if he could show me where to find that gentleman. Meanwhile, the boat approached the landing, the gang-plank was drawn ashore, and heavy boxes, barrels, and bundles, containing provisions for the Harbor, were being carried on shore. Huge carcasses of beef and mutton came next, and after that came the living freight for the Harbor. My friend seized his crutches, and coming up close to me, whispered into my ear: “Say, commodore, you are goin’ to call upon the gov’nor, ain’t you? Now, Sir, I will tell you how you could do a service to an old salt, if you wanted to There’s Jack Stubbs; he rooms with me, and has got a wooden leg like me (but only one), and has been tabooed because he came home half-seas-over the other night. It was his old man’s birthday, you see, and he had been celebratin’ it up in the city. Now, Sir, if yen could lay in a good word for him with the gov’nor, saying that he didn’t mean to do it, but that he was overtook suddenly, or somethin’ of that sort, I think that the gov’nor would let ‘im off cheap. Do what you can, commodore; Jack is a good boy, although he does love the bottle!” I promised to do as asked, and we went together through the iron gate, and up the smooth walk leading to the centre or main building of the Sailors Sung Harbor. On our way thither I learned that the boy, Jack Stubbs, for whose benefit I had promised to interfere, was eighty-two years old, and that celebrating the birthday of the old man was only a slang term for getting a little the worse for liquor, which will, my friend with the wooden legs said, occasionally happen to some of ’em. Ascending the broad marble steps, we entered a large hall in the main building, lighted from above by a large oval window in the cupola, and occupied with chairs and benches placed across the floor, and leaving a narrow passageway along the wall on either side. Just inside the door, and fronting the benches, was a reading-dcsk of oak with a red velvet cushion, and in the rear stood, on either side of the opposite door, two vases of terra cotta, filled with shrubs and flowers. A gallery went round the hall on all sides, at the height of the second floor, and above that was the cupola and sky-light. A large portrait of Captain John Whitten, who had once gone from Albany direct to China in a small sloop, and who subsequently was the first governor of the Harbor (from 1833 to 1844), faces the main entrance from the gallery; and above that is a well – executed bust, in marble, of the founder of this grand institution, Captain Robert Richard Randall. “This way. Sir, to the gov’nors office!” and my friend hobbled round to the right, and knocked at a door facing the hall; “and don’t forget to lay in a word for Jack Stubbs now, commodore, if you please”, he had just time to repeat, in a whisper, when a loud “Come in!” summoned me to enter. It was a sung and comfortable office, seated in which, before a bright fire, was the genial governor of the Sailors Snug Harbor, Captain Thomas Melville. After the usual salutations, I delivered my letters and credentials and had at once cordial welcome extended to me. Feeling comfortable and at ease after my rough and cold trip down on tile boat, I did not forget my promise to my fellow-passenger with the wooden legs but related to tile governor the promise that had been exacted from me. He laughed and promised to forgive old Stubbs for this once, “although”, he said, “he is one of the worst we have, On account of his intemperance, notwithstanding his age. By making baskets he earns enough to go on a regular spree every fortnight, and if we put no restrictions upon him, the probability is that he would celebrate the old man’s birthday some two dozen times year. By tabooing him is meant that he is not permitted, for a certain term, to go outside the iron railing. There is only about a week left of his term, and, as you desire it, I shall willingly forgive the old man that, and pat him upon his good behavior.” It must be said, however, in justice to the inmates of the harbor, that their conduct, with but very few exceptions, is irreproachable in every respect. It but seldom becomes necessary to taboo anybody, and a still rarer occurrence is the expulsion of any. This last measure is only resorted to in cases where repeated drunkenness or disorderly and violent conduct renders it absolutely necessary. Out of a population in the Harbor of more than four hundred inmates, only five or six cases of expulsion occur in a year. There were, at the time of my visit, 396 inmates in the Harbor, of all ages and belonging to all nationalities. Paragraph XI. of the by-laws of this institution declares: “All mariners, including captains and mates, if aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors, are proper objects of this trust. But no person shall be admitted as an inmate of the institution (if a foreigner born) who can not furnish satisfactory proof of his having sailed for at least five years under the flag of the United States; and this further stipulation is made: No person shall be received as a member of this institution who is a habitual drunkard, or whose character is immoral, or who labors under any contagious disease.” These are the only conditions regulating the admission of worn-out old mariners into the Sailors Snug Harbor. By the charity and generosity of the founder, Captain Randall, the gates of this snug harbor are open to every nationality and every creed. Of to the 396 inmates above mentioned, only 197 were native Americans, and these were of an average age of 57 years; the balance was mostly made up of the following nationalities:
|England,||44,||of an average age of||54 years.|
|France,||5,||“||41 1/2 “.|
In front of the main building is the marble monument erected over the remains of the founder, which were, in August, 1834, removed hither from their original place of internment.After the successful termination of the numerous lawsuits and intrigues that had for such a long time embarrassed the trustees, the revenues of the estate increased at an extraordinary ratio; and as at the same time the value of the real estate owned by the corporation in the upper part of New York had more than trebled in value, it is not surprising that the income of the estate in 1855 amounted to the handsome sum of nearly $75,000, while the institution at that time supported three hundred inmates. And since then the animal income has kept on increasing, making for 1870 a total amount of about $127,000. The greater part of the ground-floor in the main building is occupied by the hall already described, which is used in the winter months for religious services every morning and night, thus obviating the necessity of heating the chapel except on Sundays. All the buildings are heated by hot air from furnaces in the basements. To the left of the hall is the reading-room, where all the leading dailies, weeklies, and magazines can be found; and behind that is the library, well stocked with books, mostly consisting of narratives of travel and adventure and books of voyages and exploring expeditions. On the opposite side, to the right of the entrance, are the office and private room of the governor, and upstairs are time sleeping apartments, facing on the gallery. In the basement are long airy corridors and workrooms, where a great part of the inmates are occupied in basket-making. This industry is carried on to a very great extent in this institution, as it is easy to work, requiring no strength or special skill, and a pursuit in line which the blind can also engage. The importance of this industry may be estimated from the fact that during a single year baskets were made by the inmates that sold in the market for nearly $30,000, averaging an income of about $75 for each inmate. These baskets are bought up mostly by two large New York houses, and a considerable proportion of them, as also of the mats made there, are shipped to and sold in Boston. The materials used in the manufacture of mats and baskets (Spanish palm leaf and rattan) are bought by the inmates themselves, and the whole profit belongs to them individually and is for the greater part spent for tobacco and in the purchase of minor comforts. One old salt from New Hampshire had acquired a private library, numbering some forty-odd volumes, which he had in his room, nicely arranged in a bookcase of his own manufacture, with glass doors. His latest acquisition was the History of Julius Caesar, by the ex-Emperor Napoleon, bound in green and gold.
In the basement are also some of the washrooms, furnished with iron basins and large towels on rollers, where the old sailors perform their daily ablutions and make their toilet, as washing in the rooms is prohibited. Passing through the wide and airy corridors, we found about sixty old men, some of them blind, engaged in basket-making, while at one end of the hall sat a blind man preparing the palm leaf for use, by splitting it and drawing it between two sharp knives fastened into a block of wood before him, by which it is cut into a uniform thickness and width. At the foot of the stairs sat a man, apparently not very old, and in good health busily engaged in finishing the centrepiece of a knife-basket.“Hallo, Davy!” Governor Melville hailed him, “how are baskets to-day?” Davy, turning his lustreless eyes upon us, answered, “Dull, gov’nor, amighty dull; haven’t sold a basket this fortnight. Think I will leave the basket business and go into mats.” This man, whose name was David James, was, I learned, the oldest inmate in the institution (though not by any means the oldest man), he being one of the thirty original inmates. He was then twenty-seven years old and has been an inmate of the Harbor for thirty-seven years. Here we also found, engaged in basket-making like the rest, a veteran from the war of 1812, named Daniel Collins, who had been twice captured in American merchantmen by the English cruisers. Nearly opposite him, with a large mat upon his knees, with which he was busily engaged, sat Cornelius Rose, an old white-haired and white-bearded sailor, who joined the American navy in 1812, belonged to the schooner Enterprise when she was captured by the English brig Boxer, and was one of the crew of time frigate President when, under the command of Decatur, that gallant ship fought three English frigates. He belonged to the old Constitution for nine years and took an active part in the Mexican and Florida wars. His records and papers show that he has participated in no less than twenty-seven conflicts.
Besides basket-making, the old sailors have other means of making money, one of the most common of which is fishing. A large proportion of the money which they accumulate, as we have already said, goes for tobacco. Of course, no sailor can he tabooed for smoking.On our way upstairs again the governor pointed out to me the Swedish lawyer, so called from his nationality, and the fact of his being, or considering himself as being, the bright particular star, concentrating within himself the erudition of the whole community. He seemed to be not unlike our friend Jack Bunshy, and at the very time when we passed him he was engaged in laying down his opinion to another sailor and I seemed to hear the familiar words, “Whereby if so, why not? The bearings of the observation lie in the application of it. Awast, then!” Crossing the bridge, we again entered the rear building, the basement of which is occupied by the kitchen, the store-room, stewards office, colored men’s mess, and blind men’s mess. Here, also, are the apartments in which the assistants and employees of the institution take their meals. The blind men have two waiters to attend to their wants and assist them; but beyond some help at table, they require no aid, but navigate the whole building, up stairs and down stairs, assisted only by a cane, with which they feel their way. Here we meet one of the most interesting of the blind men just coming from his dinner. It is Captain John Mewen, who in 1813, while belonging to the privateer Vengeance, of New York, assisted at the capture of twenty-one British vessels. Afterward, he became the captain of an East Indiaman, and was for many years a prominent, successful, and well-known master of ships in the East India trade. But misfortunes overtook him; he lost his sight and consequently became unable to follow his profession, and he is now a much-esteemed inmate of the Harbor. Passing from this building, we cross the grounds to the hospital, stopping on the way to have a look at the steam laundry and bakery. The hospital is a magnificent and solid building of gray sandstone, built in the same style as the main building, with massive pillars supporting a portico over the entrance. In the basement are the kitchen and work-rooms for the convalescent patients who desire to work at their usual occupation — basket-making. On the first floor is a large hall with a gallery or promenade overhead, and also the mess-rooms; and the upper story is occupied by the wards, which are all large, light, and airy, and have five or six iron bedsteads in each. On entering we were met at once by old Webster, who is now in the ninety-fourth year of his age. He was admitted an inmate of the Sailors Snug Harbor in 1844, then sixty-seven years old. It must be confessed that age has, as he said himself, “rather brought him down.” His mouth is toothless, his eyes watery and dim; but his white hair and long white beard give him a venerable appearance. He speaks with difficulty and is perfectly helpless at the table. “Well, Webster, how goes it?” the governor said, approaching him and wiping off his beard, full of crumbs of bread with his pocket-handkerchief. “A-a-all ri-ght, gov-nor; b-but why don’t the d-doctor c-come to see m-me?” “Why, Webster, are you sick? If so, the doctor shall, of course, come to see you, and I will send for him at once.” “N-no, gov-nor, I a-ain’t sick; but I’m a-getting old!” “Well, the doctor can’t help that, you know; but if you feel sick or need the doctor’s assistance, why, then, of course, you shall have it at once.” “No, gov-nor, I d-don’t want the d-doctor, if you will let me g-go out alone; I c-can t-tr-travel without a p-pilot!” To this, however, the governor would not assent, much to the mortification of old Webster, who insisted that he was well enough to travel over to New York and come back again without an escort. He is remained at liberty to go out whenever he pleases if the weather is fair and nothing particularly is the matter with him, but he has always an assistant or a reliable brother inmate to accompany him and take care of him. This old man is, however, notwithstanding his age, of a very belligerent disposition; thus, a short time ago it became necessary to taboo him for a month because he knocked one of the patients on the head with his cane, getting excited during an argument over some small matter; and it was but a week previous to my visit that he challenged one of the younger boys of seventy-five outside to a personal combat as a means of settling a little difficulty between them. We found lying in bed, in one of the wards, with a bowl of chicken soup on a small table beside him, an invalid, Charles Risby, Norwegian by birth, and seventy-seven years old. He arrived in this country at Boston on the day that the long embargo went into operation. During the war of 1812 he belonged to the Constitution, on board of which he participated in the fight with the Guerriere. In the same ward was Ebenezer Lakemann, who, while serving in the American privateer Buckskin, of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1813, captured the English schooner Marianne, which was recaptured, with him on board as prize-master, by the English frigate Maidstone. He was taken to England and imprisoned there, and afterward exchanged for one of the crew of the Guerriere. In a ward on the opposite side of the hail, looking bright and cheerful, and ornamented with several birdcages containing chirping and twirling canaries, we found old Jacob Morris (colored), who entered the Sailors Snug Harbor in the year 1848, then at the age of eighty. He was now in the 104th year of his age, and had, until very lately, been well and up every day, walking around the grounds as one of the youngest. “But, gov’nor,” he said, “me getting feeble, sah; bery feeble! Me can not now leave the bed, dinner, sah, bery weak in de joints, sah; and bosom pangs here–here!” and he pressed his hands against the left side of his breast. It was evident that he could not live long. The wards for the sick were all well lighted by windows reaching from the ceiling to the floor, and well heated and ventilated. Nearly every room had birdcages and flowers in it, and the walls were painted a delicate lavender, pleasant to the eye, and imparting a soft and cheerful appearance to the room. Leaving the hospital we proceeded to visit the farm belonging to this institution, and were accompanied thither by another old veteran, John Strain. The products of the farm in 1870 amounted to $9,067.60. Allowing for expenses for conducting and stocking it $3,768.87 there a net profit of $5298.73, which is a very handsome exhibit. Among the articles raised may be named 5,465 eggs, 20,662 quarts of milk, 1,722 bushels of potatoes, 5,627 heads of cabbage, 2,990 heads of lettuce, 16,410 cucumbers, besides great quantities of carrots, radishes, beets, corn, onions, sweet potatoes, squashes, watermelons, string-beans, etc., etc. The livestock consisted of 12 milch cows, 4 young heifers, 1 Albany bull, and 90 hogs, besides oxen and horses. Of poultry, there are kept about 70 chickens, mostly for the use of the hospital. An ice-house is also erected here, in which is stored away from the ice for the use of the Harbor, which is obtained from a pond situated on their property. Away back, south of these buildings, lies a fine stone building, belonging to a society of ladies in New York and on Staten Island, but erected upon ground belonging to the Sailors Snug Harbor, which is occupied as a “Home for Destitute Seamen’s Children.” These ladies work in silence; there is no ostentation about the distribution of their charities. But they labor earnestly, and in a good cause. The chaplain belonging to the Sailors Snug Harbor lives with his family in a large and comfortable house situated on the premises, in the rear of the chapel, which was erected in 1855. Here services are held every Sunday during the winter, and every day, morning and night, during summer. The chapel is a plain but handsome brick building, without any cupola or belfry, but with large stained windows. The interior is plain but scrupulously neat and taste- fully decorated; and upon two long tablets, one on each side of the altar, are inscribed the names of all the trustees and officers that have been connected with the Harbor since its first opening. The doctor also lives upon the premises, in a fine house situated near the road and facing the Kills, far in advance and to the right of the main buildings. The governor’s house occupies a similar position on the opposite side, to the left of the main buildings, and from both of these dwellings, a flagged walk leads to the main entrance of the centre building. Directly in front of this, surrounded by an iron railing, is the plain marble monument that covers the remains of the founder of this noble charity. The old sailors are not allowed to keep dogs. To some of them, this is a great deprivation. These lovers of the canine species are obliged to gratify their peculiar tastes outside the limits of the institution. With one of them, known as the bone man, the passion for dogs amounts to a monomania. In order to render himself attractive to his favorites, he fills his pockets with bones and wanders off into obscure haunts and by-ways, where he may often be seen surrounded and followed by his not entirely disinterested clients. That the revenues of the Sailors Snug Harbor in the course of time will be largely increased when the long leases shall have expired, and their uptown property be released on more favorable terms than at present, there can be no doubt; and this will, of course, admit of a still further extension of the institution, and the accommodation of a still greater number of aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors. The greater part of Mr. Stewarts store, situated on Broadway and Tenth Street, in New York, is erect- ed upon leased ground owned by the Sail-ors Snug Harbor, as are also many other costly stores and buildings in the upper part of ~he city. The resources of the institution are very ample, and they are honestly and judiciously applied in accordance with the design of the testator, being in the hands of gentlemen well known for their integrity, and of the highest social standing. As I left I was accompanied to the gate by an old veteran, who told me that his, name was John Perz, and that he had been captured and taken to England a prisoner in 1814 by the British ship of the line Elizabeth, of seventy-four guns; and just us I got outside the gate somebody seized my hand and said, “Thank you, Sir, thank you; much obliged, Sir!” and turning round I beheld my friend of the morning on his two stumps, in company with the delinquent Jack Stubbs, who held his hat in his hand, looking somewhat sheep-faced, and staring at the knob at the end of his wooden leg. The governor had kept his promise: he was outside the iron railing, and consequently no longer tabooed.