(this is a continuation of posts from January 2, 2022, through January 9.)
I had learned that our house had been built by Samuel Booth in the 1870s. The New York City Landmarks Commission report about our Brooklyn neighborhood said that our house is a “residence erected by real estate speculator and former Brooklyn mayor Samuel Booth sometime between 1872 when he acquired the land and 1883 when he sold it to Charles and Kate Glatz.” I thought, however, that maybe there was more to learn about the building of the house and its builder. Occasionally when I had some curiosity, some energy, and some time, I headed to the Brooklyn Historical Society to dip into nineteenth century materials.
When I did this research, it was the Brooklyn Historical Society, but it has gone through several name changes since I have been in Brooklyn. First it was the Long Island Historical Society. It is easy to forget that Brooklyn is part of Long Island, but, of course, it is, but the LIHS had few materials about Long Island apart from Brooklyn, and apparently the name was changed to the BHS to reflect its mission more accurately. Recently, however, it has become the Center for Brooklyn History, and it is no longer the freestanding institution it was, but is now a division of the Brooklyn Public Library.
Even though the name has changed, it has remained fundamentally the same institution in the same building with a gift shop/bookstore emphasizing Brooklyn products and history, galleries of art reflecting Brooklyn history, temporary galleries that have exhibits about Brooklyn, a lecture hall with speakers about many topics, and a library. The library is beautiful, with a heavy emphasis on wood. An upper gallery surrounding the main reading floor has made me feel as if I am stepping back in time—just the place to blow the dust off nineteenth century records.
I started with Brooklyn atlases and city directories that listed residents’ business and home addresses. An atlas of 1870 said that Samuel Booth was the Postmaster and lived on our block, although another atlas had him living about a mile away. But atlases of 1871 through 1874, while listing him as Postmaster, had him living at an address across the street from our house. Things changed in 1875. His occupation was now listed as carpenter, and he lived in what is now our house. (Although the Landmarks Commission report labeled Booth a real estate speculator, I have found no other source that describes him that way.) I found a record that he bought the lot that now holds our house on January 23, 1872, from the City of Brooklyn. Being the sleuth that I am, I concluded that our house was built in 1874 or 1875. He also ceased being Postmaster at that time, although I have no reason to believe that these events were related. Having learned this, a good part of my curiosity was satisfied. I realized that to do the tedious research of learning who all the subsequent purchasers were until we bought the house did not interest me much. (We have owned the house for over forty years, and I would not be surprised if we are the longest owners of it.)
I found, however, that I still had some interest in learning more about Samuel Booth. I thought I might do some research into his life and background perhaps to write an article for some local history publication, but mostly to keep myself occupied. Then I got excited about this possibility when I found out that the Brooklyn Historical Society had an entire folder in its archives of materials relating to Samuel Booth. I put in my request for it and had to wait a week until it was available for me at the library. I wondered what was there. Perhaps extensive records from the time he was mayor that might lead to a book about Brooklyn after the Civil War. Or perhaps a diary or personal letters that would give insights into the man that were worth sharing.
My heart sank a bit when the librarian finally delivered the folder. It did not look thick enough to be a source for a fun research project. The folder contained only four documents comprising seven pages, and two of the documents did not seem to relate to Booth at all but instead had been misfiled. That pair were incorporation papers of a church when Booth would have been about twelve. The third document did belong there. It was a letter to him when he was mayor commending him on some action he took, but the letter, handwritten of course, did not make clear what that action was, and the signature was not one I could decipher. Finally, there were papers indenturing Booth to a carpenter and joiner when Booth was sixteen. This seldom-accessed file was a bust that doused any enthusiasm for this new research and writing project.
Still, every so often, I continued to want to know more about Samuel Booth, and when more nineteenth century newspapers went online, I could do that. I learned from these forays into digitized New York Times, the Brooklyn Eagle, and other publications that while Booth was of only minor historical significance, he was a decent, worthy man who did good works throughout his life.
(continued January 28)