When A.T. Stewart, the department story magnate, died in 1876, he was worth more than $50 million, calculated to be the equivalent of $46.9 billion in the 1996 economy. Although Stewart was parsimonious, he gave bequests of millions of dollars in today’s money to a half dozen long-time employees. When he died, his fortune was the third largest in New York, behind a Vanderbilt and an Astor. But soon he was forgotten.
Few are aware of his legacies that remain. Garden City, Long Island, is a thriving, sought-after community. A college roommate grew up there, and friends of mine have lived and worked there. There are monuments to Stewart in the town, but I certainly did not know that A.T. Stewart was the town’s founder, and when I mentioned Stewart to friends who had lived in Garden City for decades, they knew nothing about him. Perhaps if he had been egotistical enough to name the place after himself and put up entrance signs of his name in large, gold letters, he would be better remembered for this development.
The building that housed his first department store at 280 Broadway—the Marble Palace between Chambers and Reade Streets—still remains. I have walked by the building countless times, but I associated it not with Stewart but a defunct newspaper. In 1917, the New York Sun bought the building and published there until the paper’s final demise (it was bought out or merged with other papers along the way) in the 1960s. At some point, the Sun hung a clock with its logo on the Chambers and Broadway corner, and it remains. I have glanced at the clock almost every time I have gone past this intersection, but the clock logo always made the structure the Sun Building in my, and others’, minds. I had no idea it was once a profitable, famous, innovative department store and no idea that it was built by A.T. Stewart.
Stewart’s Cast Iron Palace at Broadway and Ninth was bought in 1896 by the Philadelphia retailer, John Wanamaker, who had an establishment there until 1954. Two years later in a two-day fire, the building burned down. A plaque at that location mentions that it was the site of the first cast iron building in New York City, mentions Wanamaker, but is silent on Stewart.
Stewart’s palatial Fifth Avenue mansion no longer exists. Mrs. Stewart did reside in it until she died in 1886. Then the home became a private club but was torn down to make way for a bank at the beginning of the twentieth century.
A.T. Stewart is partly forgotten because prominent landmarks don’t bear his name. In addition, he did not spawn a clan that carried his name forward. A son died a few weeks after birth in 1834, and a daughter was stillborn four years later. He died childless.
But perhaps the main reason we don’t remember Stewart is that his retail empire quickly disappeared, and that was the doing Judge Henry Hilton. Hilton was Stewart’s attorney. (Hilton had been a minor judge, but like other insecure lawyers, he kept the honorific even when he was no longer on the bench.) A.T.’s will bequeathed $1 million to Hilton while the bulk of the estate went to Mrs. Stewart. In a strange decision, in lieu of Hilton’s million dollars, Mrs. Stewart put him in charge of Stewart’s businesses. Almost immediately there was a problem.
The Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, was one of the Stewart businesses. When Joseph Seligman, an important New York City banker, went to the hotel the summer after Stewart died, Seligman, who had been summering at the Grand Union for over a decade, was turned away and told that Henry Hilton had decreed that Jews were no longer welcome at the hotel. Newspapers ran with the story, and almost immediately a hundred Jewish mercantile accounts with Stewart’s businesses were closed. Jewish women boycotted the store. It was estimated that from $3 million to $5 million a year of trade was lost within a year.
Blundering along, Hilton changed Stewart’s Manhattan hotel for single women of modest means into a regular hotel. In announcing that decision, he found ways to gratuitously insult women. Almost immediately, cards circulated for both men and women to sign, pledging not to buy anything at Stewart’s store for five years. The retail business plummeted further.
Hilton made other mistakes, including a failed foray into the Chicago marketing world. Hilton’s reverse genius was immense. As J. North Conway writes in Bag of Bones, “Hilton was forced to liquidate the business . . . in 1882 because of the boycott-led atrophy of the enterprise. Considering the enormity of the retail empire Alexander Stewart left behind in 1876, its liquidation six years later represented one of the fastest mercantile declines in American business—all at the hands of the incompetent Judge Henry Hilton.”
Even with the visible missteps, it is still mysterious to many that such a successful empire could be run to the ground, dissipating much of a vast fortune so quickly. Since Hilton had connections with the Boss Tweed ring, massive corruption was suggested but never proved. And while the business was collapsing, another mystery—this one involving Stewart’s dead body–occurred.
Stewart’s corpse was buried in the churchyard of St. Mark’s of the Bowery. Sometime in the early morning hours of November 7, 1878, his body was dug up and stolen.
Almost immediately Hilton on behalf of Mrs. Stewart offered $25,000 for the return of the remains. A vigorous and highly publicized manhunt for the perpetrators and a body-hunt for the corpse ensued, but after a few fruitless months, as the newspapers reported less and less about the matter, Patrick Jones, a former New York Postmaster and an attorney, reported that the grave robbers had contacted him by letter, saying that they had taken the body to Canada and would return it to Mrs. Stewart not for the $25,000 reward but for a ransom of $250,000. She, following the advice of Henry Hilton, who maintained that the Jones’ offer was a hoax, did not pay.
For the next few years, the grave robbery sporadically came back into the newspapers, but in 1881, Cornelia Stewart supposedly had direct contact with the perpetrators. An exchange occurred at 3 a.m. on a deserted Bronx road. One or two masked men gave a burlap bag in exchange for $20,000 to Mrs. Stewart’s emissary. The bag contained bones that she had been assured were the remains of her husband. These bones were subsequently placed in a coffin and placed in a crypt in the foundation of the Church of the Incarnation in Garden City, Long Island, protected, it was claimed, by a device that would ring the church’s bells if the remains were disturbed.
Of course, no one truly knows whether the bag contained Stewart’s remains. And no one knows who the grave robbers were. Some things remain a mystery.