Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The 1857 John Foster House -- No. 218 East 18th Street

photo by Alice Lum
By 1856 the land that had once made up the Stuyvesant Square section of what had been Peter Stuyvesant’s expansive farm—the Bouwerie—saw rapid development.  Streets and avenues had been laid out, soon to be lined with brick and brownstone rowhouses that established the area as an elegant residential neighborhood.

That year builder John Foster began work on his own residence at No. 218 East 18th Street on land leased from the Stuyvesant Family.  Unlike the dour Greek Revival homes built a decade earlier that abutted his property stretching westward, Foster’s Italianate mansion would be a bit cheerier, a bit showier, and a bit more dramatic.

Completed a year after ground was broken, Foster’s home was the showplace of the block.    High above the rusticated English basement the carved brownstone entrance was lavish.  The heavily ornamented enframement enclosed a deeply-recessed double doorway.  Two richly carved and paneled doors protected the inner double-doors and provided extra security at night and in inclement weather.  The reserved lintels of the neighboring houses contrasted with the graceful triple-molded arched (shouldered) lintels of the Foster house.  The high ceilings inside and the additional story resulted in the house looming above its neighbors.  A decade later when architect Julius Boeckell designed four somewhat subdued Italianate residences on the empty lot to the east, he included near-copies of the Foster entrance.

Photo by Alice Lum
John Foster and his wife Anne moved into the elegant new home with their children.  The Fosters had lived relatively nearby, at the northeast corner of 11th Street and Third Avenue.  The children, whose ages ranged from 11 to 21 at the time, received the education of privileged youngsters.  Son William had attended public schools before being sent to a boarding school in 1849 in Jonesville, 16 miles north of Troy, New York.  The following year he attended the Fergusonville Academy, in Delhi, New York, then finished his studies at Jonesville.

An elaborate plaster ceiling medalion can be glimpsed through the doorway -- photo by Alice Lum
Of the Foster children, it would be William who brought grief and unwanted notoriety to the East 18th Street home.   The same year that the family moved into the new mansion, William married Jane Norton on September 17.  Three months later they sailed for Australia where they lived for three years.    The same month that Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated and one month before the attack on Fort Sumter William and Jane returned to New York.  He was almost immediately appointed Inspector of Sewers by Thomas Stepheus, President of the Croton Board.

In 1871 William Foster tried a new profession—that of streetcar conductor.  On April 26 tragedy would change the lives of a number of people, including the Foster family.   William ran one trip on Car No. 73, then approached the starter and asked to be excused.  He later explained, “because I was unfit for duty; I was drunk…Drink had crazed my brain, and to the cursed demon, which steals into society of all kinds, and works its damning deeds, may I render thanks for the position I now occupy.”

At the time of his explanation, William Foster was sitting in a cell in the Tombs awaiting his execution for murder.

When Foster was excused from duty, he got on a streetcar at 16th Street heading to 22nd Street and rode in the conductor compartment.  There were only three passengers in the car:  Avery D. Putnam, Jennie Duval and her daughter Virginia.  Putnam had encountered the women outside their home at No. 762 Broadway.   They were on the way to the Church of the Advent on 46th Street where another daughter, Anna Lillie, was singing.   Putnam had graciously offered to escort the women to the church.

A lurid pamphlet published under the title “The Car-Hook Tragedy--Life, Trial and Execution of Wm. Foster,” recounted that Foster “pressing his face against the glass in proximity to Miss Jennie, who had just sat down, smirked in an insulting manner.  This brute, one William Foster, an ex-conductor of the line, seemingly not satisfied, opened the door and peered in, still grinning diabolically toward the ladies.”

Each time that Jennie Duval would close the door to the conductor’s compartment, Foster would slide it open again.  “Mr. Putnam now, becoming indignant, rose from his seat and passed out to the front platform of the car, closing the door after him.  Here Mr. Putnam remonstrated with Foster for his conduct, and begged him, as Madame Duval was suffering from nervous prostration, not to annoy her.”

Rather than resolving the situation, it worsened it.   Foster entered the car and sat next to young Virginia.  Her mother grabbed the girl and moved her away from him.

“What is it your business?” he demanded of her.

“She is my daughter, sir.”

The drunken Foster then turned his attention to Putnam and tried to provoke him by asking how far the three were traveling.  Receiving no response at all, he threatened Putnam saying “Well, I’m going as far as you, and before you get out I’ll give you hell.”

When the car reached 46th Street—more than 20 blocks farther than Foster originally intended to ride—Jennie and her daughter stepped off the car.   As Putnam started out, Foster struck him in the head with an iron bar called a car-hook.   The injured man fell to the curb and Jennie Duval screamed for help.

Foster clanged the car bell, signaling the conductor to leave.  The horses pulled the streetcar northward while Foster threw the murder weapon into the path of the car and disappeared into the darkness.   With no one around to help Putnam, the women pulled his lifeless body to the sidewalk.

By 3:00 in the morning, having been identified by the conductor, Foster was arrested at his home.   A sensational murder trial followed that was closely followed by the public.  The case became fodder for Sunday sermons throughout the city. 

Following his conviction and sentencing to death, the Governor received a letter from Putnam’s widow asking for Foster’s reprieve.  Rumors were published in the newspapers that John Foster had offered her $15,000 (about $65,000 by today’s standards) to issue the letter. 

John Foster wrote his own letter to Governor Dix on March 12, 1873 denying that he had bribed Mrs. Putnam.  Written from the house on 18th Street, in it he stressed “I am not aware that I ever saw Mrs. Putnam; but I deny most positively that I have offered or paid her any sum whatever, and I do not know that any of my friends have offered or paid her anything for her letter.  I believe the letter was prompted by the great kindness of her heart.”

In the end, and possibly because of the scandal of the purported bribe, Governor Dix refused to change the verdict to life imprisonment.   It was a politically- and socially-applauded decision.  One citizen wrote “Truly, the maxim, ‘Let justice be done though the heavens fall,’ no longer obsolete, has been electrified into new life; and let all the people good and true rejoice thereat.  In consideration, therefore, of his incalculable services to the nation in times of peace and war, and with all the proper humility of a private citizen, I nominate General John A. Dix for President of the United States.”

William Foste receives word that the Governor had not issued a repeal -- The Car-Hook Tragedy, 1873 (copyright expired)
At 8:30 in the morning of Friday, March 21, 1873, the day Foster was to be hanged, Flora Foster, a matron of the prison, entered Foster’s cell with a cup of warm coffee.  The prisoner was lying on his cot, unresponsive.  After shaking him repeatedly and realizing something was gravely wrong, she said “Oh, you wretched man, what have you been doing?  What have you taken?”

William Foster had taken poison in an attempt to end his life before being taken to the gallows.  The matron forced the coffee down his throat, which caused him to vomit.  She immediately called for more hot coffee in order to induce more vomiting.  The prison physician, Dr. Nealis, and keepers poured cold water over his head and walked him up and down the corridor.

Sheriff Brennan arrived, asking Dr. Nealis if Foster as in any condition to go into the yard for his execution.  “He is if he is carried out right way,” replied the doctor.

Foster was carried to the gallows for his scheduled 10:00 execution.  As the religious exercises were being conducted, Dr. Nealis carefully watched the prisoner.  The physician warned the Sheriff that if Dr. Tyng, the minister, did not speed things up, Foster would die from the poison before he could be executed.

As described in "The Car-Hook Tragedy," “For five minutes the reading continued, and Foster’s weakness had so increased that Sheriff Brennan whispered sharply to Dr. Tyng, ‘It’s too long.’  The reverend gentleman indeed brought the service to a sudden close, and, turning quickly to Foster, grasped his right hand and hurried away, overcome with emotion, followed by his assistants,” described."

William Foster, whose drunken action ended an innocent man’s life, was hanged at 9:18 and was pronounced dead at 9:33 a.m.

A year later, on Saturday February 7, 1874 John and Anne Foster’s youngest daughter, Emeline, died in the house at the age of 29.  On Tuesday morning, February 10, her funeral was held in the parlor before her burial in Greenwood Cemetery.

photo by Alice Lum

Following John Foster’s death the mansion was leased by John R. G. Hassard.  The respected writer had been editor of the Catholic World, but was most widely known as the musical critic and literary editor of the New-York Tribune.  He published several books, including “Life of Archbishop Hughes” in 1866; a textbook, the “History of the United States” in 1878; and “A Pickwickian Pilgrimage” in 1881.

The New York Times commended his diplomatic critiques.  “When he condemned a book it was always done in a singularly gentle manner, which never bore a spiteful or savage stamp.  The same can also be said of his musical criticisms.”

Hasssard’s health began failing in 1879 but he worked on for nearly nine years.  Finally on April 18, 1888 he died in the house on 18th Street from “pulmonary consumption.”  The highly-regarded journalist received wide-spread posthumous praise in the newspapers; his obituary in the New-York Tribune consuming nearly half a page.  His neighbor and good friend, William Winter wrote “Among the old-fashioned phrases of eulogy there is one that long usage has rendered conventional; but it is very expressive:  He was a gentleman and a scholar.”

Hassard’s widow lived on in the house.  When Monsignor  Thomas S. Preson, Vicar-General of the Catholic Archdiocese of New York and pastor of St. Ann’s Church on East 12th Street became seriously ill, he was brought to the Hassard house.  John Hassard, a devout Catholic, had written several Catholic historical works and had become close friends with the priest.   The Sun explained on October 27, 1891 that “Mgr. Preston was at the home of the widow of John R. G. Hassard, at 218 East Eighteenth street…which is in his parish, in order to be free from the bustle which the knowledge of his illness at the rectory would occasion there.”  As the monsignor’s health deteriorated, he was removed from the Hassard house in mid-October.

By 1893 the house was home to the 30-year old Dr. Simeon B. Minden.  The doctor, whom The Evening World deemed “a reputable physician” on July 21, 1893, would fall from grace decades later.   On March 29, 1921 Minden, now practicing from No. 230 East 69th Street, performed an abortion on Mrs. Catherine Riga.  Three days later the 32 year old woman died.  Although Minden declared his innocence, he was later convicted of manslaughter.

At the turn of the century the land was owned by Stuyvesant Fish; but the house was still in the possession of the John Foster estate.   On November 27, 1907 The Times noted that Fish had mortgage the property to Oliver G. Barton for $12,000 for five years.  

On January 31, 1914 the New York Herald reported that the Estate of John Foster had leased the house.  But at the end of that year the tangled ownerships were straightened out when on December 5 The New York Times wrote that “Stuyvesant Fish, Jr., has transferred to his wife, Mildred Dick Fish, as a gift No. 218 East Eighteenth Street.”  The gift included both the land and the house.

Within only a few years the neighborhood would no longer be one of upscale private homes and the former mansion became a rooming house.   Along with the change came a different type of resident.  Eighteen year old Joseph Moore was among them.  Moore and three other young men were arrested on Broadway late one Saturday night in November, 1921, charged with felonious assault.  The New York Times noted “Each defendant was fined $3, except Moore, who was fined $25.”

On April 23, 1930 20-year old Joseph Brustein was living here when he was arrested and fined $2 along with two friends.  The fine was “for haranguing a crowd and distributing circulars for a May Day demonstration of workers, sailors, soldiers and marines,” said The New York Times.  “The three Communists were charged with disorderly conduct.”

The following year Paul Leibscher and Bertha Baretz bought the house.   John Moore was still living here and he was still getting into trouble.  Although he said he made his living as a clerk he was, more accurately, a pickpocket.  On March 7, 1938 he found himself under arrest for the 41st time since 1914 and on his way to a 100-day sentence in the workhouse.

After owning the property for nearly two decades, Liebscher sold the house in September 1959 to The American Friends Service Committee.   Within the year it had been converted to offices.  The group, a Quaker organization, had been founded during World War I with the goal of addressing the root causes of war and violence.  In 1947 it was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1964 the house was also home to the New York Peace Information Center, which offered publications like “The Poor Man’s Guide to War/Peace Literature.”  By the mid-1970s the Center for Global Perspectives was here.  Financed by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, it concentrated on the primary and second grades; introducing children to “interdependence, change and communication” in regard to peace studies.

The trend continued as the 20th century drew to a close.  In 1994 the Joyce Mertz-Gilmore Foundation found its home here.  The organization says of itself that “It has a long-standing commitment to efforts which foster and protect social, economic, and political rights and which promote the development of democratic institutions.”

As it was in 1857 the John Foster house is the star of the block.  Its brick and brownstone façade is impeccably maintained; a reminder of the time when the street was a gracious residential neighborhood.
photo by Alice Lum


  1. Wow. What a great post, especially the story of William Foster. Readers might be interested to know that 'The Car-Hook Tragedy' can be read online or downloaded for free to most eBook readers from Archive.Org here: