For the last two weeks, a cold has been my faithful, constant companion, an amorous sort of cold that can’t bear the pain of parting, a clinging sort of cold that holds me in its tight embrace, stifled, smothered, barely able to breath. Colds make me gloomy. My thoughts turn morbid. In my gloomy, morbid state, I began reflecting on some of Audubon Park’s earlier residents, men who took to their beds with mild colds and never got up again. Before the era of antibiotics, oxygen tents, and other mechanical aids for congested lungs, “you’ll catch your death in cold” was an all-too-accurate warning.
One evening in February 1862, “worn out in body and spirit, overburdened with anxieties, saddened by the condition of his country” John Woodhouse Audubon halted the Scottish air he had been playing, put down his violin complaining that he felt too feverish to continue, and went to bed with a cold. Two days later, he was dead.
The 1850s were difficult for the Audubon boys Victor and John Woodhouse. Well before their father’s death, senility had left him mentally incapacitated, so they had assumed responsibility for the family business: completing The Quadrupeds of America, maintaining and expanding subscriptions for the books, a demanding business model highly susceptible to economic downturn, looking after their growing families, new children arriving almost yearly, they both were stretched to the limit. The biggest drain on their energy was their mother, the petulant Lucy Audubon, a complicated, self-absorbed woman, who outlived her husband and both sons, creating her own legend for posterity and in the process, throwing her sons – to use the vernacular of 21st Century reality TV – under the bus. Ironically, Victor and John W. had spent more than a decade trying to accumulate sufficient wealth to support their mother in her old age – developing their land in Audubon Park, speculating in land in Brooklyn, opening a foundry; her interpretation, which she proclaimed often and loudly after their deaths – was that they had squandered her property on bad business ventures, leaving her to support the family by running a school – a miraculous claim considering that most of the students were her own grandchildren, and the fees that “supported” her family came primarily from her two sons!
After Victor died in 1860, John W. bore the entire burden. When the Civil War erupted many of the southern subscribers reneged on their payments, and then after a failed attempt at bringing out yet another edition of The Birds ended in bankruptcy, the publisher Roe Lockwood placed an encumbrance on part of the Audubons’ land in Audubon Park. Health and mental state severely compromised – John Woodhouse, like his father John James was subject to periods of melancholy that today would probably be diagnosed and treated as depression – John took to his bed with a cold and died of pneumonia within a few days.
The family factionalized into three groups after John’s death, John’s widow Caroline shepherding her flock of children, Victor’s widow nurturing her brood, and Lucy decamping to a boarding house with her granddaughter Harriet, a grandchild she had always treated as her daughter. In less than two years, the face of Audubon Park had changed, Lucy selling her house to Jesse Benedict, who remodeled it with bay windows and a French roof; Caroline loosing hers in foreclosure, and Georgianna, Victor’s widow, holding fast, clinging to her home, taking in boarders to help defray costs, remaining in the Park until the 1870s, when she and her daughters moved to a rented house on 152nd Street.
In November 1884, Audubon Park resident Seth C. Hawley caught cold on a visit to the NY Police Department’s Control Office, where he served as Chief Clerk and died a week later, two days before he and his wife were to have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. A clerk, even Chief Clerk of the New York Police, was an oddity among the stock brokers, bankers, and insurance men of Audubon Park. Hawley had begun his business career in his father’s lumber business in Glen Falls, soon turning to law and practicing in Albany, before running for the State Legislature, representing Erie County several terms. His strong Whig leanings led him into newspaper work and part ownership of the Buffalo Express and then, moving in a completely new direction, he turned to bridge building. Like the Audubons, Hawley’s southern contracts and financial condition dissolved with the onset of the Civil War. When New York City’s Police Commissioner offered him the post of Chief Clerk, no doubt at the prompting Horace Greeley, William H. Seward, and Thurlow Weed, all friends from Hawley’s Legislature and newspaper he accepted, holding the clerk’s post for the remainder of his life.
Had Hawley’s daughter Lavinia not become acquainted with and then engaged to George Vanderbilt, a younger, favorite son of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Hawleys would surely not have migrated to Audubon Park. When George died during the Civil War (his death also resulted from a pulmonary complaint and not from a battle-related wound), the Commodore, a business associate of Audubon Park residents George Grinnell and Wellington Clapp, provided Lavinia with an income and a house at the corner of 155th and Broadway, well uptown, private, removed from the center of society and gossip. The property was on the east side of Eleventh Avenue (as Broadway north of 155th Street was known in the 1860s), close enough that the Hawleys claimed Audubon Park as their address, even though they did not live within the designated boundaries of that restricted enclave.
Hawley’s funeral was grand. Decked out in dress uniform, the police superintendent, several inspectors and thirty captains led the funeral procession from Hawley’s “vine-covered house.” Following were the honorary pall bearers, then six policemen bearing the coffin, the family in carriages, and finally police clerks, friends, and neighbors. The procession moved three blocks up the Boulevard (as Broadway north of 155th Street was known in the 1880s) to the Church of the Intercession, where the rector Henry Morton Reed read the funeral service and the Reverend Charles Stoddard, publisher of the New York Observer, delivered a eulogy. Then, in the same order, the procession moved back down the Boulevard to Trinity Cemetery, where the pall bearers placed Hawley in a receiving vault until permanent burial arrangements were made.
Less than a decade later, in the spring of 1891, the Reverend Mr. Reed himself died within sight of Hawley’s house, though not of a cold. Reed, who had been dining with Eugene Jerome in his Audubon Park home “fell dead in the street at about 10 o’clock near the corner of 156th Street, two blocks below the church.” Though Audubon Park residents no doubt exchanged private opinions about the advisability of dining with the Jeromes, Reed had in fact died of a heart condition, possibly exacerbated by the walk up the hill from the Jerome house down near the river, the house that John Woodhouse had built for his family in 1853, that Caroline had lost in foreclosure in 1864, and that Julia Gould Jerome had bought that same year, only a few months after her husband, Addison, a high-stakes player on the Stock Exchange, had taken a severe beating in a failed attempt at cornering the market. During his career, Addison, or A.G. as everyone knew him, had taken the expedient of giving his wife a portion of the profits from each of his deals, making her almost a millionaire in her own right. After she bought the Audubon house, Julia Jerome set about remodeling and expanding it, but before the house was ready for its new occupants, A. G. contracted a cold and died – of pneumonia.
Only a few months after the Reverend Mr. Reed died in 1891, George Blake Grinnell, the largest landholder in the Park, also died after “suffering from a light cold” for a week. Pneumonia developed and “in forty-eight hours death followed.” Grinnell’s death set off a two-decade chain of events that culminated in the rapid disappearance of Audubon Park over the course of just a few months in 1910-1911, his property passing first to his wife Helen and then at her death in 1894, to their surviving five children. Although the children differed in their views about the Park’s future footprint, they united in their efforts to ensure that the Riverside Drive Extension passed along the western border of their property and the 157th Street subway station sat on the eastern side, on land that had once been their vegetable garden, both maneuvers costing political capital, both maneuvers raising the value of the property considerably. By 1909, with apartment houses springing up all along the subway route, both on Broadway and on the side streets, the Grinnells finally sold their property to developers who quickly demolished the villas and replaced them with a series a Beaux Arts apartment houses that still stand today.
While those events played out, the middle Grinnell son, Dr. Morton Grinnell, died of pneumonia at at the age of 50 after a brief illness – beginning with a seemingly innocuous cold.
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
For want of modern medical care, the history of Audubon Park followed a trajectory that otherwise might have been quite different, or is an abundance of cold medication warping my imagination?
Audubon’s Western Journal: 1849-1850, page 37, John Woodhouse Audubon, edited by Maria Rebecca Audubon.
“Police Clerk Seth C. Hawley Dead,” The Sun, Tuesday, November 11, 1884, page 4.
“Sudden Death of a Clergyman,” NY Sun, April 7, 1891, p 1.
“George B. Grinnell,” NY Times, Dec 20, 1891, p 6.