Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The "Metaphysical University" - No. 51 Bond Street

By 1830, when the marble-trimmed house at No. 51 Bond Street was completed, Bond Street was emerging as perhaps the most enviable address in Manhattan.  Its costly residences, a few entirely faced in marble, were home to some of the city’s wealthiest citizens.

No. 51 was one of a several Bond Street homes built simultaneously by speculative builder Timothy Woodruff.  The three-and-a-half story house sat above an English basement and was faced in Flemish bond red brick.  Handsome molded lintels and pedimented dormers of the Federal Style blended with elements of the emerging Greek Revival Style: the understated cornice and what The Sun later described as “a big marble stoop and fluted marble pillars at the entrance,” similar to surviving examples on Washington Square.

The completed residence became home to Wall Street broker William Osborn in 1831.  He would be the first in a rapid-fire string of occupants.  Osborn moved to No. 45 Bond Street in 1834.  Interestingly, Lieutenant Graham of the United States Navy, the next occupant, left in 1837, and also later moved to No. 45.

In 1844 Dr. Alfred L. Seton lived at No. 51; but it quickly became a high-end boarding house.  According to Valentine’s Manual of Old New-York decades later “Among the lodgers were Charles Wilkens, music teacher, and his sister, Harriett, dancing teacher; and Thomas Pyne, a dealer in hides and furs at 164 Water street, the second door above the famous moss-covered paint store of 'Old Billy Post.'"

No. 51 was once again a single-family home when Robert H. Bowne moved in in 1849.  The Bowne family had been in New York since John Bowne arrived from England in 1649.  Robert H. Bowne was the principal in Bowne & Co., founded in 1775 by Quaker merchant Robert Bowne.  (Robert Bowne was also a founder of the Bank of New York, the Bank of America, and was highly involved in the planning of the Erie Canal.)  Located at No. 149 Pearl Street, Bowne & Co. “stationers and printers” focused mainly on financial printing for banks and insurance companies.

Robert’s wife, Elizabeth, was highly involved in the Colored Orphan Asylum, founded in 1836.  In 1855 she was a manager of the Asylum, which sent the children at the age of 12 to be “place in the country” as indentured workers.

The  Bownes owned the house until 1860, when the wealthy couple moved to No. 46 West 11th Street.  It was purchased by Martha G. Billsland who had operated an upscale “china, glass and earthenware” shop at No. 701 Broadway in the 1840s and ‘50s.  With the widow in No. 51 Bond Street was her daughter, Elizabeth Billsland.

Martha seems to have retired from business by the time she purchased No. 51.  Elizabeth, on the other hand, was just getting started.  On May 26, 1865 an advertisement appeared in the New-York Tribune that read:

Mrs. M. G. Brown, metaphysical physician, from Philadelphia, discoverer and proprietor of the celebrated “Metaphysical Discovery” for deafness and every disease which flesh is heir to, is now at her office, No. 51 Bond-st., and would be glad to see all who are using her Metaphysical Discovery; also those afflicted in any way.  She positively assures the world that there is no other antidote that will reach the cause of disease.  Her discovery treats the cause, and not the effect.”

Mrs. M. G. Brown was, in fact, Elizabeth Billsland, who was 27 years old at the time.  While she reinvented herself as a spiritual healer with metaphysical understanding and powers, her mother rented rooms for additional income.  In 1866 she advertised “To let, without board, the Second Floor, elegantly furnished, singly or together.”

By 1869 in addition to her Metaphysical Discovery, Elizabeth was manufacturing two other patent medicines “by the barrel” in her basement: the “celebrated” Poor Richard’s Eye Water, and her Scalp Renovator.  The Metaphysical Discovery sold for $3 “per package;” Poor Richard’s Eye Water could be had for 75 or 25 cents, depending on the size; and Scalp Renovator sold for $1 or 50 cents.  The cures were rather costly—the Metaphysical Discovery costing about $53 in today’s dollars.

That year she also wrote a 52-page book, the Metaphysical Pamphlet, under the name of Mrs. M. G. Brown.  She advertised “Let all suffering from deafness, blindness baldness, catarrh, noises in the head, discharges from the ear, consumption, weakness, tightness of the chest, cough, stuffing or accumulation of phlegm or any disease flesh is heir to, to enclose 10 cents to No. 51 Bond street.”  Elizabeth insisted the dime book was “worth hundreds of dollars to the sick and also to inquiring minds.”

Elizabeth Billsland went even a step further that year.  On September 4, 1869 an advertisement in The New York Herald proclaimed “A Happy Day for the Suffering” and announced “Mrs. M. G. Brown, Metaphysical Physician, will receive patients for treatment on and after September 6, at the Metaphysical University, 51 Bond street, New York.”  She promised that her metaphysical treatment “has been tested for eight years, and never failed in a single case.”

As the years passed, Elizabeth expanded her claims for her patent medicines.  In January 1871 an advertisement urged “Test the Wonders of Mrs. M. G. Brown’s Scalp Renovator on the scalp and on the feet.”  And in December 1872 an ad promised “Mrs. M. G. Brown’s Metaphysical Discovery is a sure preventive and cure for Pneumonia.”

It appears Elizabeth Billsland was ever seeking ways to expand her questionable business.  A Special Notice appeared in The New York Herald on November 20, 1873 announcing “A Free Dispensary and Lecture Room for the poor will be opened in the basement of the Metaphysical University…on Mondays and Thursdays, from 10 to 2, beginning October 23.”

Close inspection of the announcement made Elizabeth’s motives clear.   She seemed altruistic at first glance, saying “There are an unlimited number in the city unable through disease to earn their daily bread.  Some, in their distress, become frightened and resort to suicide.  Now a general invitation is given to the poor of all nationalities and creeds to come and get cured, be made strong and well, receive new constitutions and be ready to go forth and earn an independent living.”

But she added “Let the poor who come to the Dispensary bring three bottles with them.”  The bottles, of course, were to be filled with Metaphysical Discovery.  And, signing the ad Mrs. M. G. Brown, she noted “Consultation fee, $5.”  (A charge of about $102 in 2016.)

Elizabeth made good use of the new Lecture Room.  On January 20, three months after its opening, she offered “Free lectures daily this week at Two o’clock” in the “Hall of the University.”  Mrs. M. G. Brown, President of the Metaphysical University would be speaking “on Paralysis and Heart Disease.”

The resourcefulness (and debatable ethics) of Elizabeth Billsland seemed to have no end.  She came up with an ingenious, if rather heartless, plan to distribute her patent medicines later that year.  On November 19, 1874 a want ad appeared in The New York Herald:  “Wanted—Fifty intelligent women who have diseases which they cannot get cured.”

She offered the desperate women free bottles of Metaphysical Discovery, guaranteed to cure them, in exchange for work as traveling saleswomen.   Elizabeth would supply the medicine “gratuitously to those who are suitable to send out as agents into the country towns to make known to the masses the wonder-working power of the Metaphysical Discovery over disease of every kind.  Many such are in the field now doing wonders among the people.”
Martha G. Billsland died at No. 51 Bond Street on July 23, 1881 at the age of 72.  Her funeral was held in the house four days later.  The ample finances of the mother and daughter were evidenced by the notice that “Remains will be taken to Woodlawn by special car.”

Before long Elizabeth reinvented her deceased mother, as well.  A reporter from The Sun wrote a few years later “She is Miss Elizabeth Billsland, but for business purposes she styles herself Mrs. M. G. Brown.  Her mother, she says, was an English woman, to whom great spiritual revelations were made.  These revelations Miss Billsland relates were imparted to her.”

The article went on “One of the revelations is to be accomplished not by putting medicines into the mouth, but by applying them to the scalp, the ears, and the eyes.”

In her pamphlet The Metaphysician, Elizabeth explained:

The hair is a field of grass; the eyes are plants; the sight of the eye is a metaphysical plant, a messenger to the mind.  The tongue is a plant of no ordinary character.  The teeth are shrubs, with roots far down in the earth, which demand moisture—as a necessity—passed into the system through the eyes, ears, and scalp—watering pots devised by God for the use of the people in watering the plants of their bodies.”

Elizabeth’s Metaphysical University drew the attention—and then the obsession—of a 19-year old girl, Julia Cargile, in 1888.  She lived with her mother, Mrs. Agnes L. Rhodes, in the attic room of a lodging house on East Washington Place.  The Sun described her as “rather slight in stature, and modest in dress and demeanor.  She was of the Southern type of beauty, dark eyed, and rich in complexion, but her face wore almost constantly look of worry and sorry.”

Her mother said on June 17, “Lately she had been devoting her mind a good deal to the alleged discoveries of the ‘Metaphysical University’ in Bond street which had, I believe, a powerful effect upon her.”

The Sun reported “Julia was particularly sensitive about their poverty.  Casting about for something to do she heard in some way of the ‘Metaphysical University,’ at 51 Bond street, and being led to believe she could get employment there she wrote even while she was in the South about the matter.  The ‘Metaphysical University’ is a queer shop that has been on Bond street, near Third avenue, for twenty years.  It occupies an old-fashioned dwelling on the south side of the street, a broad brick building of three stories and an attic, with a big marble stoop and fluted marble pillars at the entrance.”

The newspaper remarked “Miss Billsland has just the motherly, sympathetic manner which might attract an untutored young girl in trouble, and it does not appear strange to those who knew Miss Cargile slightly that she should have imagined, in her supposed financial distress, that she could do some work in the ‘Metaphysical University,’ and make some money to meet her needs.”

The girl wrote to Elizabeth in March, explaining that she was “poor” and would be glad to work in return for a room for her mother and her.  Elizabeth declined the offer.  After trying to find work for three months, Julia wrote to Elizabeth with another offer:

If you will pay me $3 a week, I will make it my business to observe persons and hand them a little slip of paper, reading “Poor Richard’s Eye Water, 51 Bond street, might help you.” And to others I think proper I could give another slip written by me, saying “The Metaphysical Discovery, 51 Bond street, would benefit you.”  The latter slips would not be so many in number, but as there are many people here wearing glasses and many with cataracts in their eyes, the little papers relating to their eyes might bring you in a great many customers, so many, in fact, that you might be able to issue the pamphlet soon.  If you wish to employ me in any way, please inform me.  Julia Cargile.

Elizabeth Billsland did not respond initially; but after a few days sent a note saying she could not hire the girl.   Julia and her mother went to bed that Saturday night, and about 4:00 in the morning Mrs. Rhodes was awakened by her daughter’s moving around the room. 

“She saw her take a pitcher and go out as if for water,” reported The Sun the following day.  “Presently she heard footsteps on the stairway to the roof, then she heard a little noise on the roof, and then at once, before she could do anything, she saw a white object fall in front of her window.  She looked out, and on the pavement four stories below was her daughter lying in a heap, motionless.”

The newspaper added “A caller at the ‘university’ yesterday did not tell Miss Billsland that Miss Cargile was dead, but said she had a bad fall.  Miss Billsland said she was sure the scalp water would cure her, and said she would send some to the girl.”

The Sun took the opportunity to paint a detailed description of Elizabeth Billsland.  “The ‘President of the university’ is a weak, voluble little woman of 45 years, more or less, with not an extra ounce of flesh, a big nose, a very black hair, parted scrupulously in the middle, plastered down on each side over her ears, and done up in a severely plain knot behind.  She talks at a rate of 190 words a minute in a subdued voice, and almost every third sentence is a quotation from Holy Writ.”

Elizabeth died in the Bond Street house on November 20, 1903 at the age of 65.  Four decades of selling patent medicines had been good to her.  The following year, on June 22, The New York Times wrote “it is believed that [she] left more than $3,000,000.”  The value of the Bond Street has was estimated to be about $10,000.

Bond Street, once the residential epicenter of Manhattan’s wealth and culture, was how lined with cheap millinery factories and loft buildings.  No. 51 was sold at auction on July 2, 1905 and within a month the buyer leased the “entire building” to The Vienna Window Cleaning Company.

For a few years the former house retained, essentially, its former appearance.  Seiler & Co. shared the building with the window washers.  The firm manufactured “silk and straw pompons.” 

A variety of businesses would call No. 51 home over the next few decades.  By 1910 the Standard Utility Company was here; and in 1912 Morris Palester, “dealer in millinery supplies,” was in the building.  In 1915 The African Feather Novelty Co. manufactured “flower and feathers” here, while Feintuch Bros. constructed hats.  Their millinery shop was down the block at No. 24 Bond Street.

No. 51 was the headquarters of the Window Cleanrs Union in October 1917 when it served notice that its 1,200 members would go on strike “unless they get a substantial wage increase.”  The Sun ran a headline on October 15 “Window Cleaners Revolt.”  The article explained the workers demanded their $18 a week salaries be increased to $24 a week.

Rookie police officer Frank Franzone was on Bond Street at about 10:00 on the night of December 16, 1919 when he noticed a man come out of No. 51 and throw a long sack into the back of a truck.  He waited in the shadows as another man appeared and tossed another sack into the truck.  The Evening World reported “About that time the driver saw him and started his machine, but Franzone held his revolver against the windshield until he stopped.”

The robbers disappeared into the building and hid, soon to be apprehended.  The seven sacks of silk from Max Steinberg’s loft were valued at $8,000.

For several decades No. 51 would continue to be home to millinery and related operations.  The same year that the burglary of Max Steinberg’s shop was thwarted, Susman & Shapiro were manufacturing millinery here.  By 1923 Steinberger Brothers, Inc. was in the building, “converters of artificial silk, twists, and yarns in all sizes.”

At some point the marble stoop and elegant entrance way were removed.  A business front replaced the English basement, a long group of windows was gouged into the parlor floor, and the red brick was painted.  In 2002 a scrap metal processing business was operating from the former basement, where Elizabeth Billsland had her Metaphysical University’s Lecture Room.  The firm used the second floor as storage.

That year the upper floors were converted to joint living-working quarters for artists—just one per floor.  Today the molded lintels of the upper stories and the arched dormers survive, albeit timeworn.   With a little imagination the passerby can imagine a marble-trimmed mansion on an exclusive residential block; and perhaps envision a time when Elizabeth Billsland ran her questionable Metaphysical University here.

photographs by the author

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