His Honor’s House (continued)

Samuel Booth, the builder of our Brooklyn house erected in the 1870s, was born in England in 1818, supposedly (as a newspaper article said in December 1931 almost forty years after his death) “with foresight”—on the Fourth of July. (I am leery of those who claim the Fourth of July as their birthday ever since I learned that George M. Cohan, that Yankee Doodle Dandy Boy, said he was born on Independence Day, but his birth certificate said July 3. If anyone cares to look for Booth’s English birth records, let me know.) Booth did not stay in England long. With him in tow, his family imigrated to New York City three weeks after Samuel’s birth. They stayed there for the first ten years of his life and then moved to Brooklyn.

Booth stayed in school until he was fourteen when he began work as a clerk in a wholesale grocery business in Manhattan. At sixteen he was apprenticed to a joiner, and at twenty-five in 1843, he went into business for himself as a builder. His first successful building project was with John French, a frequent partner through the years, for a row of houses in Brooklyn on the north side of Remsen Street between Court and Clinton Streets, not far from the East River and Manhattan. This was a fast-developing area of Brooklyn. At that time the site of our current house was largely farmland. (While this country may have been one of general western expansion, Brooklyn was different. It was first settled on the western shore of the East River and then moved eastward.)

He was elected alderman in 1851 as a Whig, but shortly after the party was formed, he became a “staunch Republican.” He declined to run for another aldermanic term in 1855 but was elected supervisor in 1857 and reelected until 1865. In 1866, he was elected the sixteenth mayor of Brooklyn, but he only served one two-year term. The city was increasingly staunchly Democratic while he was not. (Brooklyn became a city in 1834, but much of what later became Brooklyn were independent townships. As population increased, the towns became incorporated into Brooklyn. This process continued for more than fifty years. In 1886, the Town of New Lots became part of Brooklyn followed by the incorporations of the Towns of Flatbush, New Utrecht, and Gravesend in 1894. The Town of Flatlands was the last incorporation making Brooklyn the land mass that now exists, which is contiguous with Kings County.)

His public service continued when President Grant appointed him Postmaster of Brooklyn in 1869, a position he held until 1873. And in 1878, he began a two-year term on the Board of Education.

While Booth held different positions as a public servant, a theme went throughout all of them: a devotion to public service with integrity. For example, as a Brooklyn Supervisor he headed up commissions that built a jail and courthouse “with no corruption”–an unusual circumstance then (and now) as a newspaper reported upon his death in October 1894.

During the Civil War he administered enlistment bounties in Brooklyn. Men were not drafted if a county filled its quota of enlistees. Brooklyn, as did many other places, raised money to entice men to join the army so that the draft could be avoided. Significant sums of money were often at stake and corruption frequently followed, but not in Brooklyn under Booth. As a newspaper article in December 1931 titled “Stories of Old Brooklyn” noted, Samuel Booth administered $3,800,000 of Civil War bounties, and “not a penny of it went astray,” something otherwise unheard of during the Civil War. Furthermore, as Postmaster, he did not seek to expand his domain; instead, he consolidated offices to save money.

Booth’s mayoralty was not flashy. An obituary said, “His administration as mayor did not leave any especial mark upon the history of the city,” noting that the Common Council was Democratic and pointing out, somewhat strangely, that the Council did not pass a single measure over Booth’s veto. The article also said that while Booth’s term produced no memorable results, “it was honest.”

(concluded January 31)

His Honor’s House


(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)

His Honor’s House

          The house was livable when we bought it forty-three years ago. The roof did not leak (much). The wall and floor joists were solid. Toilets flushed. Sparks seldom flew when appliances were plugged in. But the one-hundred-year-old house needed work. We, however, did not have the money for improvements. The spouse was transitioning to a post-doc in neurobiology having just obtained her doctorate, a position that was rich in remunerations in every way other than dollars, and I was working for the New York City Legal Aid Society, an employer not known (correctly) for lavish pay.

          We could only afford the mortgages, taxes, and utilities if we rented out two floors of the four-story building, and because of our new-found religion. We prayed earnestly that nothing serious would go wrong in our new home because we could not afford to pay someone to fix anything. Our beseeching was successful. Desired improvements would have to be done by us, which meant primarily, but not always, by me. Some projects were more successful than others—the floor refinishing stood the test of time, a new closet was ok, but the self-installed windows, not so much.

          These efforts often brought glimpses of a previous house and its inhabitants. We found remnants of what was probably an original painted frieze that ornamented the parlor ceiling molding. The same colors were discovered on the ceiling medallions. These indicated colorful paint jobs appropriate for the Victorian era but seldom considered tasteful afterwards. Seeing these decorating choices, I wondered what other owners had done that I would now discover. Some of them were puzzling indeed. As I stripped black paint off eight-foot, solid walnut doors, I wondered why anyone would cover such beautiful wood. What were they thinking? We also uncovered a backyard cistern; when was it last used? A postcard from Providence was found in a wainscotting gap. Was there a story behind that? Why was a fragile, but beautiful, stained glass window pushed off into a crawl space next to some abandoned sinks? Andirons rested with ashes in a covered fireplace that surely had not been used in a half-century. Why were they not carted off?

          I started to think that it might be fun to research the history of the house. This seemed especially worthwhile because we were told when we bought it that ours was a uniquely historic house. “This home is known by locals as the Mayor’s House. It was built by the last mayor of Brooklyn, and the story says that, as impressive as it was, it was not grand enough so he built the house across the street [half again as wide as ours] and moved there.” (Brooklyn was a separate city until 1898 when it became part of a consolidated New York City, and the last mayor was the one in office when the consolidation occurred.)

          I had known none of this honorable connection when we signed the house contract. In fact, I knew little about our new home’s neighborhood other than that it had been recently landmarked. I got the Landmark Commission’s report, which stated that farms were subdivided into building lots starting in the 1840s and that after the Civil War “wealthy merchants, lawyers, stockbrokers, and businessmen, who mostly commuted to Manhattan, began to build homes in what is now called Fort Greene. The brief history stated that “it remained a quiet and prosperous community for many years,” but in the middle of the twentieth century, “many of the middle-class residents left the area for the suburbs,” and “the poor moved into this old urban neighborhood.” Fifteen years before we bought our house, a newspaper referred to the area as “squalid,” but the Landmark report was upbeat. At the time we were moving in, it said that the “Fort Greene area is being revitalized as many rediscover the advantages of urban life. The buildings, many of which had been turned into rooming houses, again are becoming much sought-after private residences and today Fort Greene is a viable and vibrant community.”

          We did not buy the house because of the neighborhood. Almost no one  agreed with the real-estate gushiness of the Landmark’s report. Few, if any, applied “sought-after” and “vibrant community” to the area. Instead, many people avoided Fort Greene and felt fear when they did encounter it. We bought anyway. The house, which retained much of its nineteenth-century grandeur, appealed to us, we could (barely) afford it, and we had lived in what others referred to as high-crime neighborhoods before.

          The bulk of the Landmark report is not as promotional as its history section and consists of one-paragraph descriptions of the buildings in the landmarked area. It says that our house was “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.” So the story we were told about the mayor’s house did have a smidgeon of truth. It was built by a person who had been a Brooklyn mayor, but a little research revealed that Booth was not the last Brooklyn mayor. Booth had held the office thirty years earlier, shortly after the Civil War. And the story that His Honor had not found our house grand enough so he built a bigger one across the street was, according to the report, not true either. It says that the larger house was built in the late 1860s. Thus, its construction preceded that of our house. But still, our house was built by a Brooklyn mayor.

I had not heard of Samuel Booth, and I wondered who he might be and what, if any, was his historical significance. I also realized that there were more than a century of owners and inhabitants who preceded us. Were their stories worth learning and recounting? I found some pamphlets on how to research the history of a Brooklyn brownstone, but at the time I had other things to do, including not only my paid job but also such things as floor sanding and faucet-washer replacements. Historical research would have to wait, which it did for a long time.

(continued January 5)

When Religion Undermines Society

          As my friend and I strolled after lunch, we briefly discussed the Covid pronouncements by Aaron Rodgers. He is the overpraised but still awfully good professional quarterback* who did not play a recent game because he was unvaccinated and had tested positive for the coronavirus. I said to Bob that people of our generation who get our news from papers, televised news channels, and other mainstream online news sources miss out on what informs much of America and that a large swath of American views, including apparently those of Rodgers’, are formed by right-wing radio and podcasts that are unheard by the likes of me. The friend agreed but then said something more important: “We are at a place in this country where many will automatically disbelieve whatever the government says. If the government says get vaccinated, this group will immediately resist. If the government said don’t get vaccinated, they would immediately get shots.”

          I mulled this over but then thought that there now is another step in this pattern. Those knee-jerk government oppositionists will claim that their belief is rooted in their religion, and constitutional freedom requires that they be exempt from whatever the government mandate is. And some religious foundation or advocacy group will bring a court case seeking a legal exemption from the requirement for the rest of society.**

          This trend raises important questions for society and the government, questions that we will visit as the courts address them in the coming months. In advance of these court decisions, though, I have been thinking about the potential effect this anti-government trend can have on religion. The religious do not seem to be addressing basic questions such as: When is a belief a religious, and not merely a political, one? If a political or personal stance is accepted as religious simply because a person says it is, then religion becomes a tool of the political and personal, and the moral force of religion wanes.  A related question: How can the good faith of a religious claim be determined? And when should a religious belief exempt a person from doing what others must do? If religious people support any claim of exemption from general societal requirements because the claimant proclaims religious scruples, religion will not have much meaning

          This trend towards you-can’t-make-me-do-that-because-it-violates-my-religious-freedoms is a negative and promotes individual preference over society’s interests. You may have to follow the societal and governmental strictures, but because of my religion, I don’t have to. This is undermining what has been a religious emphasis.

Religion has always had negatives, but a central component of religion–and a good part of Christianity–has been on affirmative obligations: go to mass, tithe, support missions, pray, read the Bible. A basic imperative of Christianity has been to “love thy neighbor.” Thus, among other affirmative obligations was the injunction to aid the weak and weary and to improve the general welfare. It was for these reasons that Daniel Webster said, “Whatever makes men good Christians, makes them good citizens.” Jews and Muslims have similar obligations to the practice of their religion and to the general welfare. This is lost when religion is primarily seen as providing exemptions from what the rest of society must do. The focus on I-don’t-have-to-do-what-you-have-to-do wipes out a good part of why religious principles have been thought to build a strong America.

          I recently have been reading about Samuel Booth, the guy who built my house. After his death in 1894, Booth*** was praised in editorials and obituaries and from pulpits for his good works. He was a mayor and postmaster. He provided distinguished service during the Civil War. He served on governmental commissions. He assisted bodies investigating tragedies and determining property values. He served his Methodist Church and was Sunday School superintendent for several churches. Even after he retired, he served the public as a private citizen in diverse ways including aiding young parolees. The obituaries and ministers more than once explained this public service succinctly in words that once resonated: He was a man who believed in “Christian duties.” Religion as selfless service to others; isn’t that quaint? But is there a point to religion if its primary focus is on you-can’t-make me and not on what we should do to serve God and humanity?

And I think of the words of Mohandas K. Gandhi: “Rights that do not flow from duty well performed are not worth having.”


*I write here as a longtime Green Bay Packer fan.

** Although he triggered this discussion, Aaron Rodgers is not part of this trend. The government had not mandated that he be vaccinated to play football. The National Football League has not required vaccination either. Instead, the NFL laid out consequences if an unvaccinated player tested positive for the disease. Rodgers did not say that he should be exempt from the rules but accepted the consequences for not being vaccinated, and his public statements did not claim that his resistance to a vaccination is religiously based. And perhaps it should be noted that Rodgers has not been one of those nuts proselytizing (or is it evangelizing?) against vaccinations. His nutty views only became public when he defended himself for not being vaccinated.

**More on Samuel Booth in some future posts.