A summary of Samuel Booth’s Brooklyn mayoralty asserted that it left no “especial mark,” but that conclusion was not completely accurate. Booth set in motion projects that are an integral part of Brooklyn today. As the Landmarks Commission noted, Booth “initiated a plan for a comprehensive park system.” The park commissioners appointed Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, designers of Central Park and Prospect Park, to the task of laying out the new parks, and the result of many of the Olmsted and Vaux plans can be seen today, including in the vicinity of our house. At the urgings of Walt Whitman, who was then editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a fort used in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, was turned into a park in the 1840s. By the end of the Civil War, it had deteriorated. After approval from the Brooklyn parks commission under Booth, one of the first projects of Olmsted and Vaux was to redesign what is now Fort Greene Park. The result today is an attractive, highly utilized thirty-three acres.
Even when not holding an official position, Booth remained active in civic affairs. His opinions were solicited about an elevated railroad, and the city obtained his testimony about the value of a church building that the municipality wanted. Perhaps most significantly he testified, giving our house as his address, before a commission investigating the Brooklyn Theatre calamity of December 5, 1876. In a hall with about 1,000 of the 1,500 seats occupied, a fire broke out on the side of the stage at about 11 P.M. between the fourth and fifth acts of The Two Orphans starring Kate Claxton. Booth described the narrow stairways, less than seven feet wide, with two right angle turns from the upper reaches. When an emergency exit was opened, patrons from the lower tiers fled into the stairs obstructing them even further. Although the fire department responded quickly, almost three hundred people died in the blaze. The testimony of Booth and others led to safer theaters in a movement headed by the New York Daily Mirror. (Until I read Booth’s testimony, I had never heard of the Brooklyn Theatre tragedy. On the other hand, I have read much about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25, 1911, which was New York City’s deadliest NYC industrial disaster. That fire had 146 victims. The largest disaster in New York City before 9/11 was the sinking resulting from a fire of the “General Slocum,” a boat ferrying people to a church picnic on June 15, 1904. Of the 1342 people on board, 1021 died.)
While engaged in these various forms of public service and maintaining his own business, he was an active member of the Hanson Place Methodist Epicopal Church, which still exists. He was especially interested in young people and spearheaded that church’s and another church’s Sunday schools.
Booth retired from active business in 1881. An article about him said that wealth was not his ambition, but he “acquired a comfortable competence.” Retirement gave him additional time to devote to young people. He went to the Elmira Reformatory in upstate New York to talk with the warden there, and as a result, he oversaw parolees from that institution who were from Brooklyn. On his death, one newspaper cited this activity as another example of Booth’s “strong sense of Christian duty.”
He died on October 19, 1894, in his then home a few blocks away from ours, where he lived with an unmarried sister, a niece, and her husband. He did not die in obscurity. The next day a special meeting of the board of alderman presided over by the mayor resolved to attend his funeral and close city offices for a half day. Mayor Charles A. Schieren was quoted as saying, “If ever a man earned a seat in heaven, it was Samuel Booth, for he devoted his entire life to the uplifting of men.” Several aldermen and ex-aldermen also gave kind comments and words of praise.
In the following weeks, eulogies for Samuel Booth were given from pulpits around Brooklyn. Ten days after his death, The Rev. Louis Albert Banks, a famous man in his own right and a prolific author of “uplift” literature, who was then leading the Hanson Place Methodist Episcopal Church, said that Booth was “a man of genuine public spirit. He believed it was his duty, and the duty of all Christian men, to be as faithful to civic obligations as they were to the claims of the church.” Banks emphasized that Booth was Superintendent of the Sunday School and then said, in an unfortunate phrasing that might today bring snickers about the never-married man, “Samuel Booth believed in boys, indeed it might be said he had a passion for boys, and that is why I have called him the boys’ patron saint.”
It was a good life that Samuel Booth led. He was a decent person. Of course, often house owners leave problems for the subsequent owners—asbestos or mold, for example. On the other hand, what I hope is that anyone who enters our house—His Honor’s House—feels the sense of decency that Booth once brought into what is now our home.
And he built a damn fine house!