Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Tomb of an Amiable Child -- Riverside Park


photo nycgovparks.org
In the first years after the end of the Revolutionary War, the estates and farms of upper Manhattan were reopened.  Among the summer houses on what was then called Strawberry Hill along the cliffs above the Hudson River in 1796 would be that belonging to the family of George Pollock.

The British-born Pollock lived in town at No. 26 Whitehall Street and ran a general store at No. 95 Front Street.  In 1787 he had married the former Catherine Yates.   Five years later in 1792 the couple had their first son, St. Clair Pollock—the same year that George’s brother Carlisle married Sophia Yates, assumedly the sister of Catherine. 

The baby boy was taken to Trinity Church where church records documented “Mr. George Pollock’s son, St. Clair, baptized November 11, 1792, by Rev. Benjamin Moore.  Sponsor:  Mr. Richard Yates, Mrs. Adolph Yates, Mr. Dyckman.”

The family grew, with another son being baptized in 1794 and a daughter in 1796.   The same year, in August of 1796, George Pollock acquired land on Strawberry Hill, or Van Dewater Heights, around what is now 126th Street from Nicholas de Peyster.

Little St. Clair was apparently the joy of his father’s life.  But, tragically, it was a joy that would be brought to an abrupt and all too early end.   On July 15, 1797 the little boy “in satin breeches, silk hose and starched ruffles, took the air on the banks of the Hudson,” as envisioned by the New-York Tribune years later.  Then, “evading the vigilance of his nurse, the boy ventured too near the edge of the cliff, fell over and was killed.”

Rather than bury his beloved son in a churchyard, the bereaved George Pollock set aside a special plot of land for his son's grave near the scene of the tragedy.  According to a later letter to his neighbor Mrs. Julian (sometimes spelled Guilian) Verplanck he “intended that space as the future cemetery of my family.” 

A white marble monument was erected here, surrounded by a small enclosure.    On one side of the monument was inscribed:

Erected
To
the memory of
an amiable child
ST. CLAIRE POLLOCK
died 15 July, 1797, in the 5
year of his age

On the opposite side was carved:

“Man that is born of woman
is of few days and full of
trouble.
he cometh like a flower and is cut down;
he fleeth, also as a shadow
and continueth not.”  JOB 14:1-2

(It is interesting to note that nearly all documents pertaining to the boy spell his name “St. Clair” but the monument spells it with the added “e”.)

George Pollock’s hopes for a family plot around little St. Clair would not come to be.  Shortly after his son’s death, he encountered financial setbacks and was forced to sell the Strawberry Hill property to the Verplancks in 1799.  Yet he retained possession of the tiny gravesite.

Although some sources claim that Pollock immediately returned to England, the City Directory of 1801 still lists “George Pollock, store, No. 95 Front-st.; house, No. 26 White-hall st.”  At any rate, on January 18, 1800 he wrote to Mrs. Verplanck, now a widow, offering her the plot of land containing the tomb of the amiable child.

“There is a small inclosure near your boundary fence within which lie the remains of a favorite child, covered by a marble monument…The surrounding ground will fall into the hands of I know not whom, whose prejudice or better taste may remove the monument and lay the inclosure open.  You will confer a peculiar and interesting favor upon me by allowing me to convey the inclosure to you, so that you will consider it as a part of your own estate, keeping it, however, always inclosed and sacred.”

In the letter Pollock told Mrs. Verplanck “I have long considered those grounds as of my own creation, having selected them when wild, and brought the place to its present form.  Having so long and so delightfully resided there, I feel an interest in it that I cannot get rid of but with time.”

Pollock’s financial reversals were, apparently, not so severe that he was unable to beautify the little boy’s tomb.  “There is a white marble funeral urn, prepared to place on the monument, which Mr. Darley will put up, and which will not lessen its beauty.”  The carved urn, the symbol of immortality and the return of the body to dust,  indeed did not lessen the beauty of the monument, but perfected it.

For a few years a Mr. Tiemann lived in the Pollock house, then in 1806 Mrs. Verplanck sold the property to Michael Hogan, a native of County Clare, Ireland.  Hogan either rebuilt the Pollock mansion or razed it to build his own impressive home.   He gave the property the name Claremont (most likely a reference to his home county).

An amateur historian interested in the tomb of the amiable child, Elizabeth Akers, felt that Mrs. Verplanck included a restriction regarding the grave into the deed.  On August 11, 1900 she wrote “It would seem, too, that she must have made some stipulation about its protection in after time; otherwise, it would hardly seem possible that the monument could have so well sustained the chances of more than a hundred years.”

Supporting Akers's theory, deed records reflect that the tiny plot was conveyed in 1803 to the Recorder of the City of New York, John Prevost, who obviously maintained the gravesite.

In 1821 Claremont was purchased by Joel Post.  The Post family retained ownership of the property for decades, converting the mansion to the Claremont Inn around 1860.  Guests of the popular roadside inn often walked down the slope towards the cliffs to view the picturesque tomb of the mysterious “amiable child.”  A local publication in 1895 would remember that the Claremont Inn “was once known as the Monument House, because if its proximity to the marble monument over the grave of ‘an amiable child.’”

In 1912 Boys' and Girls' Bookshelf magazine published a photo of the grave--copyright expired
St. Clair Pollock acquired mystique of a sort and The New-York Tribune noted that he “has long been the bane of the existence of the hundreds of little boys and girls…When Agnes stamps her foot in a temper and won’t go home, even it if is dinner time, and Jackie lustly bellows his refusal to lend his tricycle to little brother, nurse is sure to rake up the memory of ‘the amiable child.’  Solemnly she assures her young charges that they need never expect a tribute to their dispositions in the form of a tablet on the Drive.”

In the meantime things had drastically changed around the little boy’s tomb as the city had inched northward in the successive decades.  In 1873, in preparation for the development of Riverside Park, the city of New York acquired the property from the Post family through “condemnation proceedings,” according to the New-York Tribune.  City officials now encountered what the newspaper called “this strange indenture” regarding the protection of the boy’s tomb.

The Tribune wrote “Who says that the city is a mere machine without sentiment?  The charge is refuted, for the city accepted the land with the provision that the grave be undisturbed and cared for always.”

Two bowler-topped gentlemen pause to enjoy the view around 1900 -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The city erected a high iron fence around the tomb which caught the eye of Frank Bellew in 1885.  He wrote in Harper’s Young People, “On the tomb of the soldier, the statesman, or the poet are recited his deeds of valor, wisdom, or genius.  The child can have none of these to be recorded, but could there be a sweeter or a nobler fame to hand down to posterity than is expressed in the simple words of this inscription, “To the Memory of an Amiable Child”?

Bellow went on, “It seemed sad and strange to find this solitary, unguarded grave, in a public park, exposed to the rude assaults of lawless idlers.  And yet it had stood there for eighty-seven years, and is little injured…There was no romance, I found, connected with the tomb beyond the romance of love and sorrow.”

On April 27, 1897, scarcely a hundred yards from the little marble tomb, the magnificent granite monument to Ulysses S. Grant was dedicated.  The irony of the close juxtaposition of the two tombs was not lost on the public nor the press.  Catherine Markham wrote a poem, “An Amiable Child,” which began

At Riverside on the slow hillslant
Two memoried graves are seen:
A granite dome is over Grant,
And over a child the green.

With Grant’s Tomb came hundreds of visitors who also paused at the grave of St. Clair Pollock.  The Evening World said “the grave is known to as many persons probably as that of Grant himself.  A pilgrimage to Grant’s Tomb is regarded as incomplete without a look at the amiable child’s resting place.”  But with the throngs of visitors came souvenir seekers.  Along with the damage of a century of weather above the rocks of the Hudson River, the boy's white marble monument now suffered vandalism.  On June 6, 1900 The Evening World noted “Little St. Clair’s white marble monument has lost much of its pristine fairness because of vandal relic hunters.  The urn at the top of the five-foot shaft has been almost entirely chipped off and even the iron railing about the little grave has been hacked away.”

In 1908 the monument was heavily eroded and damaged -- The New-York Tribune, November 8, 1908 (copyright expired)
By 1929 the inscriptions were nearly illegible from erosion.  Louella D. Everett wrote to the editor of The New York Times about it.  “I have been interested in the Grant Monument Association’s project for completing Grant’s Tomb and beautifying its surroundings.  Is it too much to hope that the association may include in its plan a provision for recutting the inscription on the gravestone of “An Amiable child, St. Clair Pollock, died 15th July, 1797, in the 5 year of his age,’ inasmuch as the grave is so near Grant’s Tomb?”

Louelle Everett would not get her wish until 1967 when the Department of Parks replaced the battered but beloved monument with a replica in more durable grey Barre granite.   Like the tomb of the great general that overshadows it, St. Clair Pollock’s grave is maintained by the City.

Although not widely known, the little grave still attracts sentiment and attention over two centuries after its erection.   As Christian Work: Illustrated Family Newspaper put it in 1901 “The soldier is entombed as one whom the world delighted to honor, and yet how much more to be desired was the lot of that amiable child!”

2 comments:

  1. A beautiful and memorable story, from tragedy comes great joy.

    ReplyDelete
  2. What a lovely story even despite the tragedy of the loss of a small child. Thank goodness it will be cared for and preserved.

    ReplyDelete